Arabesque: Experiments Three
This is the third in a series of articles inspired by Experiments, an evening-length dance production expressing the essence of scientific creativity. It will be performed November 25 – 27 at the Scotiabank Dance Centre.
I want to tell you the story of how I learned about Experiments, how it made me feel to find out about it like that, and what it continues to mean to me to be asked to participate. Like many of the best stories do, this one changed my life, even by making me more aware of who I am and what is important to me.
I’ll do my best to give you the short version, because both of us have other things to do.
Two years ago, Lucretia and I opened the Lee Gass Gallery in Vancouver, where we displayed my sculptures, hosted dinners, and discussed the meaning and marketing of art. (One happy consequence of our spending that year talking with people was that I’m now represented by the Petley Jones Gallery.)
For our Opening, we threw a big party for anyone we could think of who might be interested in my work. It was thrilling to be with our guests under those circumstances: guests, sculptures, photographs of sculptures, great conversations, and Lucretia and me in the middle of it. It was wonderful!
Among those who attended our opening were Larry Dill and Mark Winston, behavioural ecologists from SFU I’ve known and worked with forever. Independently, each of them told me about something that had happened in his life, something powerful, transformative and important. Each story had different details and different local colour than the other, and was told from a different perspective.
In a way, though, they were the same story. Here is more or less what happened.
Larry, who has been a tough-minded experimental scientist for decades, is also a ridiculously funny comic, a singer, and a formidable presence in any kind of discussion. Larry almost cried when he told me how wonderful it had been to sing Waltzing Matilda, solo, in Symbiotic, a dance performance based on his research on coral reef ecology. I was so into it when he told me that I almost cried, myself. I'm almost crying now, two years later, telling you about it. After playing in Vancouver a few times, Symbiotic travelled to Toronto and Larry went with them. He was ecstatic to have participated, and I hadn't known about any of it.
When Mark arrived, things started to happen quick.
I saw him coming, walking diagonally across the intersection toward the gallery, and I went outside to greet him. We hadn’t even gotten to the door yet when Mark stopped, put his hand on my arm, pointed to a sculpture, and asked me if I realized what I had done. What Mark told Lucretia and me about my sculpture Eternal Flame, set off a whole cascade of events that led to Mark’s commenting about that sculpture in an article he wrote in the Jewish Independent newspaper in Vancouver.
That was just the first thing that happened after Mark arrived at our opening. He met Lori, the love of his life there, too, and Lucretia and I claim 100% credit for that miraculous event. Before I was aware of any of that, though (I did notice that they liked each other), Mark told me about his own participation in Symbiosis. It was as if Mark and Larry were ganging up on me, and it turned out later that they were.
Without going into detail about what Mark told me, I'll just said that whereas Larry sang, Mark danced. Otherwise, it was the same story - - maybe two versions of the same story. Those scientists could only have been described as ecstatic in telling me their stories.
The image of a middle-aged entomologist dancing on a stage is delightful, even if all you do is imagine it. But you can see a clip of Mark Winston doing it here.
If you've ever heard Larry snore, as anyone who has slept within a mile of him can attest, his bringing an audience to tears with Waltzing Matilda, bringing himself with it, is easy to imagine. At this moment, I am unaware of any audio or video record of his performance, but I'm working on it.
They told how exciting it had been for a pair of scientists to collaborate with a choreographer to create a professional dance production about science and nature and perform in it. Only a fool could miss that message! I got it, and I haven't yet recovered from the impact. I hope I never do.
What gave Larry's and Mark's stories their power to change my life was partly that they were good stories, but more that it was Larry and Mark telling them. That made a big difference, because I trusted their experience. It also made a difference that they told them to me straight, from the heart, and without holding back anything - - especially their enthusiasm.
An important element of both stories was that the choreographer they were talking about was Gail Lotenberg. I had known Gail since her husband Alejandro Frid studied mountain sheep, wolves, eagles, and grizzly bears as a masters student at UBC about 17 years earlier. In visiting his camp in the Shulaps Range one time, I learned that Alex is a mountain man if there ever was one.
I don't know if Gail and I saw each other even once during that whole long time, but I always remembered her. When we first met, I was struck
by her unusually keen intelligence. Not just "raw compute power", but what my Mother called smart. I remembered Gail as really smart. She seemed unusually able to understand complex, unfamiliar ideas quickly, to improve that understanding by asking questions, and to speak about them in a way that I still find engaging.
When Larry Dill and Mark Winston hinted, subtly and separately, that Gail Lotenberg might invite me to join her next project, Experiments, those were the first things I thought of. When she contacted me, I jumped at the chance.
Two things about working on Experiments with Gail changed my life.
Helping to create a dance production that captures essential features of my own personal sense of scientific discovery has been as thrilling and transformative as Larry and Mark had led me to expect. I can hardly wait for the dress rehearsal on Wednesday night.
It has been challenging and difficult work for all of us (not even to mention the dancers, who are magnificent) and I would never have been able to do it by myself. But I did what I could, and I can tell you from my own experience that when dance succeeds in communicating science on a deep enough level, it can be thrilling.
The other way Experiments changed my life relates to my daughter Susan Daniel. By the time she was a young teenager, Susan was a very good dancer. She attended a special Performing Arts high school in Portland, where her peers were other committed dancers, some of their teachers were members of the Dance Theater of Harlem and other famous companies, and they worked hard to improve their skills and perform them.
Susan and I talked every night on the phone. We talked about all kinds of things, including homework, food, friends, the challenge of living in strange towns without one’s parents, and dancing.
I found it fascinating to listen to her descriptions of what she was learning in ballet and other dance classes, especially the complex, demanding movements she was struggling to master. Those movements, being as they were at the edges of Susan's current experience, we not yet completely part of her. And yet she spoke of them, clearly enough that I could imagine what she was telling me.
In words, over a long distance phone, often with static on the line, her words and how she expressed them drew me in. She drew moving pictures in my mind, and I could watch her dancing. It worked better if the lights were low, but it worked and I could do it whenever she wanted me to.
Susan’s description of the Pirouette is one good example. I didn’t know a pirouette from a perogy when she first started talking about it. But gradually, with nothing but my daughter’s words to help me, I saw her spinning. She even showed me how difficult it is to spin gracefully, by generating a verbal movie of myself spinning, in which I felt my own imbalances without ever leaving my chair. That led me to appreciate Susan's growing discipline in practicing the movement, and her growing discipline in expressing herself. And on and on until now.
Another good example is the Arabesque, which is a complex and difficult movement to master. It is also as difficult to describe in words as it is beautiful when performed well (and ungainly when it is not). Again, by the miracle of verbal interpersonal communication, we discussed the action and imagined it improving, using only our words.
During that year, I carved a sculpture for Susan in pink Portuguese marble. I called it Arabesque, because all during the carving of it, I imagined Susan performing an arabesque. The completed sculpture reminds me of that.
Here is another view of it, also by Vancouver photographer Stuart Dee.