Moving to the next level – Seeing science through an artist’s eyes

Bodystorming dancers. Photo by Poornima Kartik.
Bodystorming dancers. Photo by Poornima Kartik.

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.

Day four, NCBS: Crossing the divide

Dancers in motion. Photo by Poornima Kartik.
Dancers in motion. Photo by Poornima Kartik.

How do you facilitate collaborations across disciplinary divides? How can you get people from the sciences and arts to talk with each other in fruitful, respectful ways?

This is one of the questions from the audience for David Odde and Carl Flink at Atta Galatta, a regional language bookstore / bakery in Koramangala where Odde, Flink and two dancers from the Black Label Movement have traveled to showcase bodystorming under the auspices of Café Scientifique. Odde and Flink tell the story of how their own collaboration began at the University of Minnesota, with the initial aim of building educational methods that would explore science through dance. They had met through the Institute of Advanced Studies, bonding across a lunch table over common interests in catastrophic motion. Eventually, insights from the dance began informing David Odde’s research in cell mechanics – and insights from the physicality of cell movements began informing Carl Flink’s choreography.

But how did they start?

I catch a glimpse of beginnings at the restaurant where the Café Scientifique crowd retires after the talk. To my front and to my right are conversations that intrigue me, on widely different topics. Carl Flink and Crystal Edwards are expounding on the trials and tribulations of the contemporary dance world, talking about how to create meaning through dance as choreographers. On the other side, David Odde is happily engaged in a technical discussion about his work. I find I can focus on either the dance conversation, or the biology one – my ears cannot seem to take both simultaneously.

And then something unexpected happens. Odde reaches his hand across the table to the two dancers. He says, “Why don’t you bodystorm the evolution of dance?” Flink and Edwards latch onto the idea. They toss thoughts back and forth about the speciation of dance styles, drawing off of the bodystorming practise with frog speciation earlier in the week. For a few minutes the conversations join.

How do you get scientists and artists to talk with and learn from each other? Perhaps it is really this simple. Create a relaxed space where they can meet. Sooner or later, somebody will reach a hand across the table, and ideas will come out.

Collaborative conversation
Collaborative conversation through dance. Photo by Poornima Kartik.

One hope of the bodystorming workshop at NCBS was that it would generate creative ideas, and even after four days the interaction has borne some fruit. Hema Bhagavan, a PhD student at NCBS who works on social behaviour in bees, worked with the dancers this morning to model her current research on bee “curtains” – layers of worker bees that form a living wall, protecting the hive from outside elements. Bees on the inside of curtained hives travel out through gaps generated under pressure in the living wall (with the intervening “strings” of bees functioning as pillar-like structural supports). These gaps may heal if they are small enough – or they may persist, at least in potentia. Bhagavan is trying to understand the observations that she has made in the past few months, that fissures tend to show up in roughly the same spots in the bee curtains over time. Are “strings” permanent fixtures in the hive wall? Or could it be the movement of the bees themselves that leads to fairly consistently placed exit holes?

The dancers tried random motion within the “walls” of the hive, before attempting to exit through the live barrier – exerting pressure as they collected in twos and threes. Bhagavan was intrigued to find that that the human simulation actually matched her counter-intuitive observations. Once again, fissures showed an apparent consistency. “Non-randomness emerges from the random behaviour,” she explained – although she still does not have an explanation for that result. But she hopes that bodystorming can help. After a few more run-throughs with different kinds of motion the bees could be exhibiting within the hive, “[The results] will actually help me to progress in my research – which kind of experiment I have to design.”

Bhagavan leaves for the day, and the dancers stay – as do the structures she brought with her. Now the dancers are improvising with the biologist’s ideas. They are playing with the dynamics of bee movement across living walls, playing with the forms that transport across that wall might take – turning the movement of the natural world into art. One dancer leaps onto another, who catches and turns her. She is twirled across the divide, and flies out into the open.

— Anjali Vaidya

(Edited, 06/05/2015: Corrected the definition of strings in hive walls, originally equated with fissures.)

NCBS, day three: Performing evolution

Working out the dynamics of speciation. Photo by Poornima Kartik.
Working out the dynamics of speciation. Photo by Poornima Kartik.

Music from The Lord of the Rings movies is playing, echoing across the underground basketball court at NCBS where bodystorming has been happening for the past two days. Typically, this music would summon images of ancient landscapes for me – snow-capped mountains of New Zealand, carved from the earth. Today, the sounds give energy to something just as primal. Dancers try to depict millions of years of evolution, driven by the rise and fall of geological features in the Indian subcontinent.

How do you model time? How do you model mountain ranges across which populations disperse, accumulating random mutations along the way? The questions that these dancers are wrestling with today are no different from the questions that a scientist would deal with, sketching out algorithms for computer programs and debugging for the hundredth time. Also like a scientist, these dancers and choreographers have no hope of depicting reality with perfect accuracy. They cannot bring out each element of an animal’s behaviour, every shift of rock that we would see in the real world – and neither do they have any intention of doing so. As with a mathematical model, abstraction is the point.

But abstraction on a chalkboard may lead to a different set of possibilities than what is happening here, with abstraction through physical movement. “I feel like I learn better when I’m doing something physical,” said David Odde yesterday, explaining the concept of bodystorming to the NCBS community. With bodystorming, “you’re thinking about [the problem] and moving your body at the same time.” Scientists also benefit from learning creative approaches from dancers, in Odde’s opinion. “We know we need creativity in science. Working with these guys makes me appreciate how much bigger the creative space is in art than science.”

Dancers travel as they evolve. Photo by Poornima Kartik.
Dancers travel as they evolve. Photo by Poornima Kartik.

The Lord of the Rings music is still resonating across the basketball court, but eons have now come and gone. Dancers slowly move. They are dividing into different species, their dance styles mutating. Ancestors are left behind – these older variants remain still, crouched, hands to faces. Lost in time. Time is depicted here as change and as distance – precisely as it would have been in a graphical depiction. But rather than lines on a graph, here we have people in motion. Rather than adding random cataclysms to a program in order to divide populations, here a dancer runs on soft feet, dividing one group from another. As she pulls individuals from one side of the room to the other, I can imagine the rivers – the fissures in the earth – the mountain ranges that spring up in between. The music stops, and we are all released from a spell.

S. P. Vijaykumar, whose work with frog speciation was explored spatially yesterday (temporally today), seems energised by the experience. He gives a powerpoint presentation in a corner of the gymnasium to explain evolution and phylogenetics in more detail to the dancers, fielding questions from the dancers that again focus on movement and the physical attributes of these processes. Yesterday, Carl Flink spoke about how every scientific presentation is a performance, and I am beginning to notice how much we spontaneously compensate for two dimensional technology. Today I watch scientists wave their arms, gesture, move their bodies from side to side in an effort to communicate complex ideas across widely separated disciplines. Even without dancing, still we all seem to dance.

— Anjali Vaidya

Day two, NCBS: Turning the world upside down

David Odde held aloft
David Odde held aloft by the Black Label Movement. Photo by Poornima Kartik.

David Odde, biomedical engineer, is being held upside down on stage.

“I didn’t expect this,” he says, with an understandably muffled laugh. Held aloft by the hands of half a dozen dancers, Odde takes his rotated world view with good humour. He has spent the last hour speaking to an audience at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) about the three-dimensional, vibrant physicality that gets lost when biological systems are described on the flat pages of a textbook, or through a cold computer screen. The argument that Odde puts forward in favour of bodystorming – combining mental reason with bodily insight to approach scientific problems – is already of passing familiarity to most of the audience, two days into the Black Label Movement’s bodystorming residency at NCBS. However, this spontaneous display of the power of dance to (literally) expand our horizons drives the point home in a very visceral way.

Odde is returned to his feet, and Carl Flink, director of the Black Label Movement, asserts that human models cannot compete with the computational power of a machine. “What we can do,” Flink says, “is give you the opportunity to see [science] from a different perspective.”

What is that different perspective? This morning at NCBS, it took the form of a basketball court full of dancers (and participating scientists) exploring the lives of honeybees. Under the direction of animal behaviourist Axel Brockmann, twenty individuals became bees within a hive, deciding which bee dance to collectively follow in search of food. What emerged was not an accurate mimicry of insect movement, but rather a vivid exploration of the contagion of motion. “Scout” bees stamped their feet, twirled, clapped, hollered and beat their chests – improvising from one iteration to the next to see how the intensity of a dance could inspire a critical mass to copy the movement and follow suit.

In the view of Joseph Crook, one of the dancers with the Black Label Movement, the power of dance and art in general lies in its gift for abstraction. “[Dance] is about taking really complex ideas and creating a through-line, or a connection,” he says. “It’s very hard in dance to be extremely literal.” This is precisely where it can help with science, where once again models revolve around the abstract and require imaginative leaps. Through bodystorming, Crook says, “you’re taking minds that think drastically differently, and bringing them together to solve the same problem. You then have a larger array of possibilities than you ever had before.”

Bodystorming dancers
Dancers create species-specific movements. Photo by Poornima Kartik.

The abstractions of dance can take unexpected forms. As subject matter for the dancers shifted from bees to frogs over the course of the day, metal railings (and people) transformed into trees and hills. A few metres of floor became the thirty kilometre Palghat Gap, which runs across the southern range of the Western Ghats and served as a historical barrier to gene flow. S. P. Vijaykumar, who studies speciation in frogs, was intrigued by the way that dancers took his ideas and ran with them, experimenting with different ways to model speciation. As groups were split at random by “forces of nature,” dance styles diversified in ways that became accentuated when dancers reunited. Vijaykumar saw potential for bodystorming as an educational tool, after witnessing the way that dancers learned about and improvised with scientific processes through movement. “Sometimes their dance is teaching them about the processes, rather than I am teaching them,” he said. “I gave them the clue, but it came back in a much more interesting way.”

— Anjali Vaidya

Day one, NCBS: The zombie apocalypse

Bodystorming Hits Bangalore
Bodystorming workshop in Bangalore. Photo by Poornima Kartik.

Early evening on the first day of the Bodystorming Hits Bangalore residency at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), the sun is just beginning to set and the zombie apocalypse has arrived. The NCBS lawn is filled with running figures that periodically collide. The runners’ hands are upraised and twisted; their faces contorted. I hear animal-like grunts rising from the crowd. A strange contagion must be spreading through campus.

Either that, or dancers and researchers are acting out the spread of a virus through a bacterial populations. To the casual observer, the two have striking similarities.

Is this dance? Is this science?

It appears to be a little bit of both.

BLM dancers 3D
Black Label Movement dancers experiment with three dimensionality. Photo by Poornima Kartik.

Sixteen dancers are residing at NCBS for the week, half from the Minnesota-based Black Label Movement and half from India. After a weekend working together, the dancers spent much of today collaborating with two biologists at NCBS, searching for ways to model research problems with the movements of human bodies. As it happens, both biologists deal with microscopic aspects of the natural world. P. Babu studies glycosylation, or the enzyme-assisted process by which glycans (monosaccharide chains) become attached to proteins. Sandeep Krishna wanted to examine the dynamics of viral infection in bacteria. Within a few hours this morning, these two problems had been dubbed “the sugar dance” and “the zombie dance,” with both researchers actively involved.

Krishna already feels that the collaboration has yielded fruit. It has led him to think of new spatial directions in which to model bacterial survival in the face of viral attacks. “Even from the science or simulation point of view, it was pretty interesting,” he says. “There was one observation Carl [Flink] made, which was that when he was the bacterium and got stuck in a corner, he would often survive longer. When I have done these simulations on a computer, I haven’t done it in a confined volume. I wouldn’t have noticed that effect.”

Bodystorming at NCBS
Bodystorming at NCBS. Photo by Poornima Kartik.

And what of the dancers? All seem enthusiastic thus far about pushing the boundaries of science, and searching for art within it. “I see scientists as being brilliant artists,” says Veena Basavarajaiah, a dancer and teacher who is looking for ways that the residency can shape her own pedagogical methods. “I feel the way [scientists] look into the world, and how they bring in curiosity and a sense of wonder – it’s amazing.”

The science / dance boundaries seemed porous today, with scientists learning to gesture like choreographers and break down their research into rules that dancers can follow. And the dancers, in turn, are finding words to create bridges between art and science. After listening to researchers describe speciation, honeybee dances, glycosylation and viral infection this morning, Carl Flink (director of the Black Label Movement) neatly summed up the features shared between dynamical systems and choreography. In Flink’s estimation, each boiled down to structures of movement. “All dance is basically space, time and energy,” he said.

— Anjali Vaidya

Bodystorming hits NGMA: Dance versus powerpoint

Black Label Movement performs at NGMA
The Black Label Movement at NGMA. Photo by Poornima Kartik.

 “If you’re trying to give the big picture of a big idea, to really capture its essence – the fewer words you use, the better. In fact, the ideal may be to use no words at all.” This was how science writer (and instigator of the Dance Your PhD contest) John Bohannon introduced the idea of using dancers to explain and explore complicated problems in his 2011 TED talk, “Dance vs. powerpoint, a modest proposal,” which doubled as a performance piece with the Black Label Movement. The dance – and talk – came to the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Bangalore on Sunday April 26th, with the role of John Bohannon reprised by Joseph Crook of the Black Label Movement.

As Crook told the audience at NGMA about the “spooky” counter-intuitive properties of superfluids, such as their capacity to slow down light, the ideas were mirrored in the movements of dancers behind him. “This is the great pleasure of science: the defeat of our intuition with experimentation,” said Crook. “But the experiment is not the end of the story, because you still have to transmit that knowledge to other people.”

Can dance help transmit complex scientific ideas to non-specialists? The spell-bound audience on Sunday suggested that it could. However, the dancers of the Black Label Movement have gone much further than just mirroring science in recent years, under the direction of dancer/choreographer Carl Flink (University of Minnesota). The dancers use movement to brainstorm scientific problems, a method they call bodystorming – and draw artistic inspiration from science in turn. Carl Flink spoke on Sunday of his collaboration with biomedical engineer David Odde (also of the University of Minnesota), all of whom are now in Bangalore for a week-long Bodystorming workshop at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS). Odde and Flink met through the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Minnesota, through a shared interest in catastrophe – one in cells, and the other in dance. They have worked together ever since, exploring the dynamic environment within a cell through dance.

Q&A after talk
Post-talk Q&A. Photo by Poornima Kartik.

Dancers can only complement computer simulations, Flink asserted on Sunday – they cannot replace computers. What bodystorming can help with is intuition, narrowing down the potential avenues for exploration. “There are three doors you could have gone through, and now you know to go through door one,” explained Flink.

Satyajit Mayor (NCBS), who has helped bring bodystorming to Bangalore, spoke of how he gained a more visceral understanding of his research problems by seeing the dynamics of cell membranes acted out on a macro scale by the Black Label Movement at Woods Hole, Massachusetts last year. “We got a bird’s eye view, and started to see patterns emerging,” he explained. The exercise also “sharpened one’s own ability,” Mayor said, to break down a problem into a set of necessary mechanical rules.

The dancers, in turn, are inspired by the natural patterns that immerse them. Crystal Edwards, a dancer and choreographer with the Black Label Movement, said that bodystorming had changed her own creative process. “Instead of trying to make something happen, you set up rules and let patterns emerge,” she said. Likewise, Joseph Crook found the process of scientific collaboration stimulating, saying that it let him “think beyond the world of art for inspiration.”

Carl Flink after talk
Carl Flink answers questions. Photo by Poornima Kartik.

Carl Flink, as well, looks to the world around him and sees organizing principles that inspire. “Whenever you look out the window you see so much motion,” he said. “I like to capture that in my choreography.”

What does he see so far in Bangalore? Flink admitted that he and the Black Label Movement dancers were mildly terrified by the city’s traffic, on their way to NGMA on Sunday. But the more that he watched, the more order he saw in the interweaving vehicles. They were guided by one rule: “If you see the space, you take the space.” Flink illustrated his words with a weaving of body and hands, making even the chaos of Bangalore traffic momentarily beautiful.

— Anjali Vaidya