Abandoning Abandon: Dancing Science

The collaboration: unusual. The outcome: unpredictable. The experiment: still seeking a hypothesis. Experiments is an unusual collaboration, a project between dancers and scientists to discover whether our seemingly solitary cultures could connect through dance, and what thorny points of tension might arise if our disciplines intersected.

Our objectives are to communicate the process and impact of science to a wide public audience through the captivating medium of dance, move audiences to consider science more relevant to their everyday experience, reveal the deep and shared passion of scientists and artists to understand the world around us, and probe how the methods and outcomes of science and dance together can contribute to civic engagement and public discourse.

We began with the simple idea that scientists, who create and test hypotheses, could design an experiment that dancers could dance. The focus for the dancers in this collaboration is to translate the elegance of a refined intellect into articulate movement.

Through this process, we hoped to illuminate whether scientists and dancers inhabit common creative ground, or if the obstructions are too great for them to see eye-to-eye using the lens of experimentation.

The scientists are all ecologists currently or formerly connected with Simon Fraser University or the University of British Columbia (Larry Dill, Alejandro Frid, Lee Gass, Anne Salomon, Mark Winston). The dancers are Vancouver-based, independent artists (Alana Gerecke, Darcy McMurray, Cara Siu, Leigha Wald and apprentice Julia Carr). Gail Lotenberg is the choreographer and the Artistic Director of LINK Dance Foundation, a creation and performance company spearheading collaborative and interactive projects in contemporary dance since 2001.

Our working structure was simple: put scientists and dancers in a room together, and have the scientists design a dance experiment. Many of the scientists had researched predator-prey interactions, so a testable hypothesis quickly emerged that a dancer could not detect another dancer sneaking up from behind her. We designed an experiment to put the dancers through replicated tests in which a blindfolded “prey” dancer had to raise her hand when she thought the “predator” dancer was approaching.

The results were inconclusive as an experiment, but fascinating as an exploration of creativity in two highly different disciplines.

The scientists clustered at the edge of the studio, watching each replicate and then redesigning the experiment to eliminate variables. We reduced the unknowns, trying to tightly define how the predator dancer approached the prey to allow tedious replication under precisely the same conditions. After all, the key to successful scientific experimentation is to reduce all variation to one testable factor, and predict an outcome. Creativity comes through clever structure, not freedom.

The dancers were more interested in exploration rather than repetition. Their artistic intuition led the dancer predators to approach their prey using novel movements each time, with unfamiliar responses from their prey counterparts.

Their creativity was expressed through celebrating each new movement rather than precise repetition of previously defined patterns. Expressive dance developed, with each dancer’s movements building on but differing from the previous trial, much like a tree limb that begins with a bud and grows into a complex branch.

Our disciplinary training certainly showed. Scientists are indoctrinated to use logic and reason to overcome bias, commit rapidly to a testable paradigm, and articulate verbally with precision. The dancers, in contrast, seek the juicy stuff that comes from the fifth cousin once removed of an idea, discarding limitations and precise definitions with abandon, hesitant to pronounce outcomes lest words reduce the urgency of ideas expressed through movement.

Lotenberg watched the discrepancies unfold and the seemingly irresolvable points of conflict arise, leading her to question the feasibility of our collaboration and its intention to find common ground. Then a lightning bolt moment: Methods and working styles may differ, but the one thing scientists and dancers share is that intuitive ideas emerge through experimentation.

Lotenberg created a choreographic response. She would build a repetitive structure in the dance that followed the form of a scientific experiment. The dancers would initially use the constraints embedded in this repetitive structure in a playful way, becoming more inventive and clever with each repetition, to create variations and subtle nuances.

But gradually the repeatability that lends credibility to experimentation begins to stifle their creativity, strangling the dancers’ physicality and imagination, to the point where straightjackets eventually appear on their bodies. The dancers respond to these emblems of restraint by accessing what they have left—their breath, spinal movements, saliva, and other basics that permit them a language for human will to maintain identity and connection. This choreographic vocabulary of constraint aims to express the irrepressible urge to remain human.

But what then redeems the compunction of science to impose limits in pursuit of discovery and intellectual advancement? The next section of the dance celebrates creativity born in structure, seeking to reveal the unpredictable beauty that can blossom from a tightly woven form. Like a fractal that derives from a constantly iterative process, this section of the dance examines the simple beauty and surprising delicacy that can emerge from repeatability.

The project has revealed considerable potential in using dance to extend science into a public community, and has inspired both the scientists and dancers to continue our collaboration. The LINK Dance Foundation has joined forces with Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue to extend our studio interactions into a new performance, Experiments, that will further explore what happens when logic and emotion collide.

We hope for a May 2010 debut. Join us then, for an experiment about experimenting. Feel the beat, move the body, celebrate the passion as we learn from each other.

Mark L. Winston is Academic Director and Fellow at Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue, and Gail Lotenberg is the Artistic Director of the LINK Dance Foundation.

Direct correspondence to winston,,,sfu.ca
Mark WinstonGail Lotenberg

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