'Dance and science, it turns out, can be deeply connected.' Sanjoy Roy

What does abstract contemporary dance have in common with science? Not much, you might think. Abstract art pays little attention to definition of terms or clarity of meaning; science depends on them. One is individual, partial, experiential; the other aims for independence, impartiality and objectivity. Motives, means, ends – everything seems at odds.

But think about the language of scientific method and choreographic process, and some shared keywords spring to mind. Contemporary dance is an experimental art, one that tries out ideas in order to find out – discover – what results are returned. Choreographers talk about researching a piece, sometimes likening the rehearsal studio to a lab where they investigate ideas and material.

The material of dance – essentially, the human body – does of course also suggest a natural affinity with human biology. Indeed choreographer Wayne McGregor has created pieces directly inspired by neuroscience (such as AtaXia, 2004) and cardiology (Amu, 2005). But choreographers often sense affinities with other scientific fields: physics, for example, with its fundamentals of space, time, mass and momentum (both Rambert’s Mark Baldwin and Birmingham Royal Ballet’s David Bintley have done “Einstein” pieces); or natural history and animal behaviour, with its myriad examples of action, communication and locomotion – used, for example, in Baldwin’s “Darwin” piece Comedy of Change (2009), or Siobhan Davies’s Carnival of the Animals (1982, revived by Rambert in 2008).

But perhaps the most fascinating and productive connections between choreography and science are where both are at their most abstract: science as ideas about the order and organisation of the world, choreography as the order and organization of the stage. Taking its cue from Euclidean geometry, for example, Frederick Ashton’s 1948 masterpiece Scènes de ballet reconfigured stage composition so that the work could be seen from multiple angles. It was a foretaste of more radical reimaginings by modern dance legend Merce Cunningham, who took Einstein’s post-Euclidean dictum that “there are no fixed points in space” to destabilise and “relativise” the stage – and in doing so, changed the course of choreographic history.

In the 1970s, the burgeoning field of systems theory (and its descendent, chaos theory) found echoes in works by minimalist choreographers such as Lucinda Childs, their algorithmic loops and cell-like structures producing dances that viewers might sense as the actions of atoms, or the movement of the stars. These ideas continue in works such as Drumming (1998) and Rain (2001) by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, who has also used “emergent patterns” derived from the flocking behaviour of birds. More recently, Guilherme Botelho’s incrementally changing Sideways Rain (2010) evoked the grand sweep of evolution, while Shobana Jeyasingh used forms of plant growth to inform her 2013 piece Strange Blooms.

Dance and science, it turns out, can be deeply connected. Do we need to know the science to appreciate the art? Not at all. When such choreography works well, it affects us on two levels: intellectually, we sense an underlying order, process or pattern, and in doing so we feel the kinds of emotion that science can provoke – a wonderment at the world, a marvelling at its details, a glimpse into its mysteries.

Sanjoy Roy writes on dance for the Guardian, and has contributed to publications including the New Statesman, Dance Gazette, Dancing Times and Pulse. His writing archive is at sanjoyroy.net.

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