Chasing a dream
Collaboration blends dance, physics and animation to inspire and educate.
Dancers charged toward the back of the stage and scrambled furiously up “aerial hammocks” (suspended swing-like fabrics)—while animated rockets taking off illuminated the projection screen behind the dancers as the noise of engines enveloped them. And that was just the beginning of “DAAP Stellar and the Dream Chasers!”—a performance by UGA’s CORE Concert Dance Company. DAAP stands for Dance, Aerial, Astronomy, and Physics.
The piece began as the brainchild of Bala Sarasvati, the Jane Willson Professor in the Arts and artistic director of CORE, who wanted to translate the sophisticated concepts of physics through the artistic medium of aerial and contemporary dance. The project morphed into a collaboration of three different disciplines—dance, science, and animation—as she enlisted the help of physicists (to provide expertise on a range of topics) and animation faculty and students (to pair the movements of the dancers with simulations and stunning cosmic vistas).
The spring 2013 CORE premiere performance ended with the dancers “taking flight,” but Sarasvati wasn’t content to leave it there. “I wanted to go further,” she says. “I wanted to push the boundaries and delve deeper into the universe.”
In the summer of 2013 Sarasvati was awarded a grant from the Office of the Vice President for Research to begin creating “DAAP Stellar and the Dream Chasers!” This grant—in conjunction with funds from Sarasvati’s endowed chair, provided through the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences—supported the project. As she conducted background research, Sarasvati decided to incorporate the name of “Dream Chaser” into the title of the performance to connote space-age advances; the Dream Chaser is a space vehicle that blasts off like a rocket but lands like a jet.
Physicists join the dance
In fall 2012, Sarasvati reached out to William Dennis, head of UGA’s physics department, to propose its collaboration on a performance that would integrate elements of dance and physics. This imaginative idea didn’t take much convincing. “I was fascinated by the challenge of translating physical concepts into an artistic form that could spark interest in physics, especially among folks who normally wouldn’t be interested,” says Dennis.
Nine colleagues from the physics department were fascinated as well; ultimately, physics professors from 10 different specialty areas offered their expertise on topics ranging from nanotechnology and subatomic particles to supernovas and black holes. Accordingly, the performance was separated into 10 parts, one for each specialty.
Sarasvati videotaped her interviews with each professor as they offered summaries of their research areas. During the performance, she projected short clips of these interviews onto two massive weather balloons that framed each side of the stage like huge bookends. Sarasvati also distorted the voices of the professors to make them sound disembodied and seemingly extraterrestrial.
Physics professor Heinz-Bernd Schüttler’s face appeared on the weather balloons at the beginning of the superconductivity section of the performance, and his voice was played as well. “Opposite charges attract, like charges repel… or so the ancients taught us,” said Schüttler in a deep bass tone. And he delved into Cooper pairs, electrons that attract despite having the same charge, likening these electrons to a pair of dancers dancing far apart.
With the conclusion of Schüttler’s speech, three dancers took the stage on three separate “lyras,” hoops suspended from the ceiling. Standing on the hoops, the dancers spun in circles mirroring each other’s movements like the electrons he described.
“Movement ideas are deepened when we bring in the aerial equipment,” says Mirna Minkov, a senior who has been dancing in CORE for the past three years.
Animators add their magic
The third crucial piece of the performance, animation, was the last to be incorporated.
“I heard about Bala’s idea for this collaboration and wanted to participate,” says Mike Hussey, an associate professor in the Department of Theatre and Film Studies and an expert in computer animation. “It’s something I wanted to do and have my students experience. It seemed natural to bring dance and animation together.”
So last August Hussey formed a group of both undergraduate and graduate students to begin working on animation for the show. Still, it didn’t come without challenges, he says.
For one, many of the students had never studied particle systems. For another, they had to develop the animation to support the dancers rather than have it stand by itself. And because some of the animation they created clashed at first with the movements of the dancers, they had to revise it again and again.
In addition to their own animations, Hussey and his students incorporated animated video mapping projections created by Adam Barfield, an Athens-based multimedia artist whose work for this project was supported by UGA Ideas for Creative Exploration.
War no more
Rewind to spring 2013. The company’s dancers have put in months of practice to prepare for their performance of “Taking Flight.” Sarasvati has also prepared a reception afterward to celebrate both the show, and the collaborators’ hard work. But one thing is missing: a theme-appropriate decoration for the party.
Sarasvati has searched high and low for a toy plane that would complement the show’s aerospace theme. But all she could find were fighter jets with nuclear warheads attached to the wings—a revelation.
“I wondered ‘Why are we introducing children to the cosmos if these are the only toy options?’” she says. “And the movies are always Star Wars, aliens, and abductions.”
She wanted to showcase a different side of flight and space exploration, a side not related to war or fear. She hoped the performance would also instill in the audience a greater fascination with the universe.
“I definitely have a greater appreciation now for physics,” says Minkov. “The entire experience has been personally enriching.”
And physicist Dennis notes that the collaboration has changed how he thinks about communicating his research. He now looks for innovative ways to make his work more widely accessible, even to people without a physics background. “It could trigger an interest in physics among those who had never before considered it a possible career,” he says.
(This article first appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of ugaresearch magazine.)