Dance of the Genes

“One of the great lessons I’ve learned from Liz [Lerman] in the three years we’ve worked together is the importance of ‘rattling around in somone else’s universe,'” writes Center for the Arts director Pamela Tatge ’84 in her essay for the Ferocious Beauty: Genome program. The Liz Lerman Dance Exchange opened its world premiere performance of this new work at the CFA theater on Feb. 3, the result of three years of collaboration between the Dance Exchange and Wesleyan, one of the major sponsors of this project.


The universe in which founding artistic director Lerman was “rattling” was that of biologists, specifically those who work with genetics, and it began when Tatge learned that Lerman hoped to explore this subject in her work. Her goal was to refine ways of conveying scientific ideas to nonscientists and to gain knowledge through this dialogue between science and dance.


“I knew she needed to meet Laura Grabel, then dean of Wesleyan’s Natural Sciences and Mathematics and a developmental biologist,” Tatge writes.


Grabel, a trained modern dancer and one of the collaborators on this project, notes that, “There’s not much call for a dancing biologist, so for the past 30 years or so, I have kept those parts of my life separate.” That, however, has changed.


Lerman, who received a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2002, was a visiting assistant professor at Wesleyan in the fall of 2005. To explore the topics of greatest concern to geneticists and to learn the science behind the debates, Lerman and company have entered the classrooms and labs at Wesleyan, talking to scientists and students. Lerman also joined Grabel and Associate Professor of Philosophy Lori Gruen in teaching Reproduction in the 21st Century, which Lerman calls “a vital gift to the project: an opportunity to try out our ideas, have a dialogue, and test the contribution that art can make in the examination of a topic.”


Says Grabel: “We did the ‘menstrual cycle dance’ in class, I danced in my cell culture room, I talked about stem cells and danced with Mendel.”


The performance in February–a multimedia and multidisciplinary event–used dancers, video, music, lighting, and narrative to explore the implications of genetic research. Interviews recorded with scientists at Wesleyan, Stanford University, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign formed the backdrop to dancers depicting the motion or emotion of scientific concepts. Still images and animations were projected onto a giant screen or onto the dancers’ bodies.


In one segment dancers whirl on stage, drawn to one another and forming partnerships, then breaking away, melding their bodies into a new group’s dance, interpreting, perhaps, the randomness and variety in genetic combinations. In another segment, projected on a huge screen, an actor portraying Gregor Mendel tends his peas. In a video of scientists, Wesleyan biologists Laura Grabel, Laurel Appel, and Manju Hingorani talk about their work. To tackle questions of artificially prolonged life, dancers interpret a fairy tale in which a young man captures Death in a sack so his beloved will never die. New “rules” for old age, including mandatory games of Russian Roulette and a prohibition against the use of seatbelts, flash on a screen and illuminate a lone man in fitful bursts of exercise, like a prisoner in his cell.


A performer peels apples, comparing the curled peel to the shape of the human genome, and muses on the varieties of the fruit she used to discover outside as a young girl. Now, she says, they are all the same–beautiful but without flavor. Her final wistful note on agricultural engineering, “No more tart surprises,” arrives as a counterpoint to the entrance of a new dancer, a small woman in a wheelchair who joins the able-bodied members of the collective in a dance. New York Times critic Jennifer Dunning calls the moment “an irrefutable case for the place of perceived biological imperfection in the span of human genetics. Her argument has nothing to do with ethics. And it is a case that could be made only by an artist.”


This is Lerman’s version of “nonfiction dancing”–an exploration of a topic within the context of modern dance–presented, she says in the program for the event, in the way that she might read nonfiction: “It allows for deep, absorbed comprehension, but also for skimming and for what I call the I Ching method: randomly opening to a page and picking up a thread wherever the eye falls. Through this process we arrived at the same things a reader can gain from nonfiction: amazing stories, details, specificity, and the benefits of research that someone else has done.”


The second performance of Ferocious Beauty: Genome was later in February and was to be followed by six performances nationwide over the next 10 months.


“Knowing early in our process that a major institution saw so much potential in the project helped us to know we were onto something of critical value,” Lerman writes. “Our sincere thanks to all of our partners at this dynamic university.”


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