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Big Bang ballet

13 September 2010

Performance evokes particle physics, cosmology, and new perspective

In his dramas German playwright Bertolt Brecht strove to trigger an “alienation effect” (Verfremdungseffekt in German, or just V-effekt). Alienation in this case meant forcing viewers to look at things in a new way.

The V-effekt was evident at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland, where on 10 and 12 September the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange “did” particle physics and cosmology in a mixed-medium show. In existence for more than 30 years, the Lerman company has performed modern dance events based on contemporary themes, including recently one concerned with genetics.

Called The Matter of Origins , the program last week consisted of two parts. In the first part dancers were propelled around a large stage by insistent music. They were backed by large screens filled with projected images; you might have expected pictures from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and equations floating in midair, and you’d be right. But other images or movies, showing nervously moving hands or people sleeping in bed, were also there to distance you from too close an expectation of what a ballet about the origin of the universe or the forces of nature ought to be.

The images were backdrop; the main thing you saw was human dancers. And here I have to admit that modern dance is a puzzle to me. Being a literalist, I tend to look for specific signs and meanings. Being a physicist I mostly want to encounter cosmology in an analytic way. Dance gestures seem hieroglyphic; they speak a language I don’t understand. I appreciate the athleticism and elegance of the effort but am sometimes dismayed by what looks like arbitrary movements. So, going to a dance about physics was, consequently, bound to trigger a personal V-effekt.

But surely art and science are both big enough to assimilate just about any topic. Furthermore, I believe that art is in the eye of the beholder. It’s what you make of it. Maybe I’ve been looking at dance in the wrong way. Dance, and most of nonverbal art, evokes rather than depicts. It can momentarily disorient in order to re-orient.

For example, in The Origins of Matter one dancer stood on a chair while other dancers tried to tip or yank her off. Indeed she lost her balance a number of times, was repeatedly caught by others, and then tried again. That nicely evoked (but certainly did not depict) a feeling of the bafflement of perspective (the nonexistence of any preferred reference frame) or the fuzziness of quantum measurement (the observer disturbing the thing observed) at the heart of modern physics.

A video shot at the LHC showed a dancer gliding along the main beam tunnel and past computer farms that will contain petabytes of data. A photograph of what looked like an LHC detector—where high-energy collisions approximate fiery conditions nanoseconds after the Big Bang—morphed into one of the Hubble Space Telescope’s most famous pictures, the Ultra Deep Field, perhaps the deepest-focus optical photograph ever taken.

In a brief audio clip, physicist Gordon Kane is asked what dark matter looks like. His answer: It's dark. Then the dancers tried to depict—I mean evoke—dark matter anyway, in the form of tangled arms and gestures.

Another goal of Brecht’s V-effekt is to break down the barrier between performer and viewer. He wanted playgoers not merely to sit back in their seats but to think about, and maybe even argue about, what they’d seen.

In the second half of Origins the audience was split into groups and steered into smaller rooms, where they were seated at large tables. The conceit here called for us to imagine that we were in a Los Alamos café where Manhattan Project scientists would come for a respite from their war work. In the first half of the program, we watched dance, music, images, and projected inscriptions, but in the second half the participants were offered actual cake and tea (the specialties of the original café), more dance (dancers moved among the tables), and even a mini-ballet offered up on iPad devices stationed at each table. That little tableau rendered the 1945 Trinity test shot as whirligig ballerina with a fist reaching in from outside the frame to represent the rising mushroom cloud.

The most important ingredient in the second half was the conversation, which was kept in motion by a “provocateur” at each table. We were encouraged to talk about the show, our favorite scenes, and any pleasures or detractions we cared to address. The most poignant discussion at my table centered on that iconic physics creation, the atom bomb. What if, with the pushing of a single button, you could probably end the World War II, but at the price of incinerating a hundred thousand civilians: Would you do it? The ambivalence at the table was palpable.

The Matter of Origins was the season opener at the Clarice Smith Center; volunteer discussion leaders came from various cultural institutions in the Washington, DC, area. In the course of two performances, and in hallway encounters, I spoke with a theologian, a linguist, an orchestra conductor, a hospital administrator, Enrico Fermi’s granddaughter, and a variety of physics, mathematics, and engineering professors. The theologian appreciated hearing the opening verses of Genesis spoken in Hebrew. The conductor responded chiefly to the music. An official from the National Academy of Sciences was there to see how science could be popularized through the arts.

In the program notes, company founder Liz Lerman said that she was intrigued by her visit to CERN and her conversations with scientists there during the creation of the show. “At this stage of my own life, stumbling into the extremely complicated and driven lives of theoretical and experimental physicists surprised me by their poetry,” she said. “I found making the piece a kind of refuge from the contemporary political world I live in.” For her, CERN had a kind of sacred feeling to it.

This brings things full circle. Friedrich Nietzsche said that Greek tragedy drew creatively on the forces of both Dionysus and Apollo, on both disordered energy and cool rationalism. If dance can accommodate physics, it would be interesting to see whether physics could accommodate some of the intoxication of dance.

Phil Schewe

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