By Christina Gesualdi, January 23, 2013
The poet Albert Goldbarth writes, “Perhaps the arts and the sciences have never slept together without one eye kept warily open.” However warily, though, they have slept together. There are points of connection, even intimacy.
Susan Rethorst has no time for this “wariness”, this tiptoeing around. Rethorst gains perspective by honestly asserting her ideas into a dance or a book and then invites others to engage and converse with these ideas in a risky way while the public stands by as collective participant and witness. In Other Voices, two neuroscientists: Bree Chancellor and Matt Young and a chemist/quantum mechanic Michelle Francl read Rethorst’s book A Choreographic Mind: Autobodygraphical Writings and then created an experiential feedback loop between their own daily work and value systems rooted in science and Rethorst’s choreographic ideas, procedures, and modes of perception.
BUT one sure thing dance-making and science have in common is that there are curveballs - surprises that come out of left field - circumstances that no one could have predicted, that can’t be edited out or glossed over but instead must be embraced and incorporated. The morning of Other Voices, Rethorst called in sick.
Although Rethorst was not there in the flesh, her ideas about “dailiness” permeated the workshop’s beginnings. Rethorst writes:“Dailiness allows for the endless finding of a reason, for curiosity, ongoingness, tedium, for humor, perspective, for working with the unclassifiable, for the work of work, for embracing the excitement of being led by that stranger, the unmade dance.”
Our “stranger” was an unmade workshop, an Other Voices that without its main instigator and driving force had the potential to play itself out differently than its hypothesized form. But Chancellor, Young, and Francl know “dailiness” in the lab, in research, in the lecture hall; the three came ready to dive in just the same!
Starting the day at 10 am, we sat on the floor in a small circle. Both the scientists and our small group of participants—a lively crew of dancers, choreographers and educators--intuitively knew that in spite of Rethorst’s absence, the magic was in the doing: the physicalizing, the trying out, even the dancing. Participants wore dance pants and straddle–stretched as we introduced ourselves to one another.
Bree Chancellor picked up the clues and got us “doing” by facilitating “The Game,” an exercise Rethorst uses in composition classes and explains in her book. We paired up. Each pair scavenged their personal belongings and those of the LAB to find 5 objects. My group had a leather glasses case, a metal jack, a chip clip, a plastic cup, and a silver butter knife. Our task was to take turns arranging the objects in space rapid fire without talking: me and then him, me and then him…a constant manipulation and sometimes wrecking of my partner’s proposals. Isn’t that the definition of scientific research after all? After about seven or so minutes in, I started to go through cycles of boredom and then in the moment, my aesthetic/emotional/sensing brain and body would say “What if…?” and propose something that felt fresh and almost right. Our group stuck rigidly to the rules enjoying the simplicity of discovering that the butter knife slid perfectly into the slit of the glasses case or that the jack could delicately hang from the magnetic strip on the chip clip or that when turned on its side, the cup had a rolling mind of its own. At the end of the game, we realized that other groups had asked more chaotic questions than we had; as we looked around the LAB studio, sugar packets had been cut open. Paper plates had been sliced into pieces. Two groups had even woven their compositions together, and Michele Francl was left standing, balancing part of the composition on her head.
This behavior and exploration is very fitting for Francl because she is a quantum mechanic, with research interests in the structures of molecules that misbehave. As she segues into a discussion of chemistry and its unruly molecules, she speaks of her daily play in the lab, the constructing of physical models to predict the unpredictable. Here I had pictured her in the lab with test tubes of fancy solutions and beakers of smoking green goo. Francl hands out metal pieces that look like jacks and colored straws that attach to their ends. We use them to assemble our own non-planar assymetrical carbon molecule models. Francl explains the buckyball, the soccer ball or geodesic dome form that Buckminster Fuller found to represents the form of carbon C60. We discovered firsthand the concept of chirality, right handed and left handed molecules that have a non-superimposable mirror image. Much like knot theory or even Rethorst’s daily choreographic work in the studio, Francl stresses that big discoveries are often born of the seemingly inconsequential but relentless questioning of possibilities.
Susan Rethorst also writes about a gut feeling that implicitly emerges when a certain movement is just what the choreography needs. Bree Chancellor provides an anatomical and historical background of how neuroscience views explicit vs. implicit learning. Implicit learning is the kind you didn’t even know you learned. An example is knowing how to ride a bicycle in the city. In the beginning, I had to actually think, “Keep my hands near the breaks. Stop at the traffic light. Put my foot down, hop off the seat, then reset the pedals.” After years of riding, all of these steps are ingrained and I don’t need to singularly re-consider each one. Dancers know the concept of implicit learning as “muscle memory.” As choreographers, if we bear down on explicit structures and formats for our dance making without trusting our instincts, our work will lose its fingerprint; the living breathing person inside of it will die off. But there is also danger in letting implicit thought cycles rule us; we may end up making choices without feeling like we chose anything at all; our habits and tendencies can take over everything we make if we don’t add obstacles and new variables to our processes. Hence Rethorst invites new stimuli, new roadblocks, so her implicit tendencies, memories, and perception are freed up, allowing them to shift and change.
Matt Young takes this stream of information and adds the finishing touches. Young is currently completing his Ph.D. in Neuroscience at The University of Pennsylvania, and he does experiments with mice to understand the neural mechanisms through which stress and emotion shape memory. Young asks us to close our eyes as he counts backward from 30. He begins to sing The Star Spangled Banner. Part way through, BANG; he pops a balloon, and we all jolt and open our eyes. We feel our hearts pounding, our blood quickening. He tells us to close our eyes again and repeats the same situation, minus the balloon pop. This time we clench our jaws, tense with the memory of the past iteration. Young then encourages us to let our emotional worlds enter into the dances that we make. Rethorst writes about having a visual and kinesthetic imprinted memory of her childhood trips to the grocery store. She remembered the way that the cans were stacked or the people waited in line so vividly because her senses and emotions were intrinsically present in the moments of perception and recall.
As the workshop comes to an end, I think that the daily work of choreography and of science is to keep oneself in it, to not edit out the person conducting the research. It is our job to saturate dance movements and chemical formulas with ourselves. It is also imperative that we are present in our work from day to day, actively perceiving its’ nuances and subtleties. Other Voices was a reminder that both dancemaking and science move forward by jostling and dislodging fixed ideas, and sometimes they even cross pollinate.