Energy. Weight. Gravity. These are just a few words and concepts that scientists and choreographers alike may employ on a daily basis. Beyond linguistic similarities, both often share a common purpose: understanding and uncovering what lies at the core of human experience, at the micro or macro level. What are the potential results that may derive from a dialogue between scientists and dance artists? With Synaptic Motion, San Francisco-based dance company Capacitor offered one perspective of the conversation between neuroscience and dance earlier this fall at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Quantum, a piece by Swiss choreographer Gilles Jobin to be presented at ODC Theater this coming Sunday and Monday, provides another example of the fruitful collision between arts and science.
In 2012, Jobin immersed himself in the world of fundamental research and particle science during a 3-month residency at CERN. Located in Switzerland, CERN is the world’s largest particle physics laboratory and the site of considerable achievements in physics and computer science, including the birth of the World Wide Web and the confirmation of the Higgs boson.
During a conversation earlier this week, Jobin talked about the choreographic systems that he has implemented in his work: “These systems, which I call ‘organic organized movements,’ are about decision-taking, live on stage, according to a certain set of rules that [dancers] have to respect.” While at CERN, Jobin was interested in looking for the existence of systems, inside the interaction and movements of particles, that he could use to create what he calls “movement generators.” These generators would form the basis of a set choreography. To explain what he meant, Jobin referred to electronic music: “You put the sound through an engine; with algorithms and a certain number of conditions, it transforms the sound, more or less randomly, depending on the different conditions that you apply.” Likewise, Jobin’s generators help catalyze movements in the studio via the dancers. His role is to create systems that are “efficient and give enough information to the dancers to allow them to compose their own phrases. It’s like an algorithm: you give the instruction to the dancers and they…. bring the results. I work like a programmer. If I think [their phrase] is too imprecise, too loose, I refine my code.”
In conversation with the scientists with whom he was paired during his residency, Jobin learned about other elements, symmetry and force for instance, that he could apply to choreography: “I started to work with the idea that the most important forces are non-contact forces, which is very interesting because in contemporary dance, contact is very important and we use [it] a lot. How do you connect two bodies without contact?” Jobin also remarked that gravity is the main force affecting dancers. The dialogue with scientists led him to realize that gravity itself is quite weak in comparison with other forces, a fact which challenged his preconceptions and encouraged him to “use [it] as an ally, rather than something to overcome.” Borrowing from his research on electromagnetism, Jobin experimented with the idea of applying forces on systems: “There is a section called ‘the elusive duo’ where both dancers are positively charged, like magnets. That means that they cannot touch each other. The contact is impossible.”
Another scientific finding that inspired Jobin during his residency was the Feynman diagram, which represents particles’ trajectories and interactions. The physicists at CERN taught the dancers how to draw diagrams that captured the material and paths of the choreography.
Jobin’s immersion at CERN also made him aware of the importance of research in the arts: “When you are at CERN, you meet people who dedicate their lives to research. They may find nothing. It’s not about finding, it’s about searching and putting out your research for other people to see and continue what you have started. It took CERN 48 years to confirm the existence of the Higgs boson!” In a lecture at CERN, Jobin related his observation to the dance field: “In Europe, dance is a production-based activity. We don’t research enough and produce too much. But just like in science, we need dedicated labs in contemporary dance. Science shows us the importance of research to find knowledge.”
The choreography of Quantum is not the only element of the piece that stems from Jobin’s dialogue with science. Quantum’s score, by Carla Scaletti, is based on real data from CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator. Jobin explained: “The Higgs data has a signature. [Scaletti] grabs that signature and transfers it into sound. The addition of all these events makes the soundtrack very particular and organic.” Beside score and choreography, visual artist Julius von Bismarck’s kinetic light installation occupies the upper plane of Quantum. For Jobin, sound, score and movements exist independently, all in constant movement throughout the piece: “Three worlds mix into each other. The sound comes from under, the lights from above, and the zone in between is where we dance.”
Jobin insisted that he did not mean to be illustrative of physics with his piece. His aim was to generate movements, abstract and suggestive enough to elicit thoughts in the viewer. Quantum demonstrates that beyond the complexity and abstraction of scientific or choreographic language, lies human interaction: three male and three female dancers coming together, and apart; finding ways or failing to relate; escaping, searching or finding contact; their bodies drawing elaborate equations in space, for the viewers to interpret and solve.