Outside, the overcast sky had spilled into yet another rain and hail-filled evening in Bangalore, causing trees to fall and traffic to come to a standstill. But the auditorium at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Bangalore was hushed on Saturday as dancer Swapna Bhasi took the microphone for the last remark of the evening, after dancers showcased the creative outcome of their week-long bodystorming residency at NCBS. The dancers from India and Minnesota had embodied proteins binding to sugars, bees exiting a hive and frogs undergoing speciation – with each representation of a biological system followed by a sketch choreographed by one of the dancers, improvising on the structure introduced by the scientist and turning it into art.
The final question from the audience: Dance (like any art form) is fundamentally about emotional expression. How do dancers feel, suppressing that emotion in service to scientific rationality?
Bhasi responded by describing her visit to the Southern Lab Complex at NCBS earlier in the week. Her eyes glowed as she described the sights and sounds that she encountered. In school, science never appealed to her – she ran from it, and took to dance instead. “Today I take a u-turn and visit a science lab, and I find my dance in it,” she said. When Bhasi sees an image of a cell, now, she sees art. “Science and dance are in the same plane. Both imagine.”
For me, this was the most fascinating aspect of the bodystorming residency: watching scientists and dancers build a common language over the course of five days, and search for ways to make their creative processes compatible. “It was like developing a new language in which we could communicate with each other,” said Veena Basavarajaiah, dancer and teacher. Speaking as an ecologist, S. P. Vijayakumar agreed: “I went from jargon to English, from saying diversification to just saying splits.”
Beneath the jargon, what do artists and scientists have in common? Looking back over the week, I was struck by an exchange from the first day of the NCBS residency. After computational biologist Sandeep Krishna worked with the sixteen resident dancers on the spread of viral infection in bacteria, he fielded questions from dancers about disease dynamics over lunch. The dancers were impatient to get back to the problem and take it to the next level. But how do you go to the next level of a problem – in science or in dance? How do you build a coherent story suitable for outside consumption, whether as a publication or performance?
For Basavarajaiah, intuition plays a large role in dance choreography. “You can often say it’s a gut feeling [that guides the process],” said Basavarajaiah. At the same time, she felt that systematic exploration was also a factor. To get enough material for a coherent narrative, you need to first know your subject well. But hands waved around the table as dancers and scientists struggled to describe that elusive something that tells you the shape of a story even before it is done.
In science, that elusive something may be reduced to a “hypothesis” – at least for the purposes of academic paper writing. But Krishna felt that the practise of science is far less orderly than scientific papers would suggest. One’s hypothesis is often discovered after the fact, rather than driving research from the start. For Krishna, the constraints of journals and the need to publish frequently play a large role in deciding the kinds of scientific narratives that make it to publication. “With scientists it might be similar [to choreographers], but you have to publish,” said Krishna. “We move to the next level when we think we’ve got enough of the story that can be published, that can go into a journal. You have to be convincing enough to a subset of your peers.”
“Even [in science] there’s a sense of performance,” Basavarajaiah said with a laugh, and Krishna agreed. Scientific publishing is a kind of performative act. The dancers and scientists had found one more word in common.
Watching the bodystorming performance at NGMA on May 2nd, I noticed one more commonality. Carl Flink said on multiple occasions that “bodystorming is not art” – bodystorming is a research tool, and the improvisation that follows bodystorming is art. And yet I can’t help but find these structured movements as beautiful as the choreographed pieces that emerge from them. There is a kind of fundamental beauty to dynamical systems – their sometimes deceptive order, and their unexpected diversions from intuition. The math itself suggests a dance, and to see that at a macroscopic scale – to see that yes, it’s beautiful here too – is a profound experience. Is this science? Potentially, a kind of science. Is this art? Perhaps it may be that as well.