Dancing Physics and Society: The Matter of Origins

Liz Lerman Dance Exchange - The Matter of Origins. Photo: George Hagegeorge © 2010

Delightfully, every so often, the Neutron Trail leads me into realms artistic. When I heard about Liz Lerman’s Dance Exchange new work The Matter of Origins, with its exploration through dance of the interplay between atomic and high energy physics in society, I contacted her with great excitement. She responded in kind and invited me as a guest to the world premiere this past weekend at the University of Maryland.

The time depicted in the first minutes of the performance is 1943-1945 and World War II is raging. The newly discovered potential of atomic energy poses a threat and an opportunity. Reasoning the enemy could develop an atomic weapon, the US government setup the Manhattan Project. The hub was in Los Alamos, NM where scientists and their families lived on a mesa (hill) within a strict container of secrecy.

Act 1 opens symbolically with a teacup from Los Alamos. Here, my grandfather Enrico Fermi was second in command under Robert Oppenheimer working to solve the most difficult problems associated with developing the first atomic bombs.

Projected unto the encircling backdrop are a teacup and its round saucer viewed from above and enlarged far beyond human scale. Within the teacup a person rearranges every day objects. On stage, the dancers echo and expand the vision, moving dramatically with real teacups and saucers.

Universe in a Teacup

Where did this universe in a teacup come from?

Imagine the strangeness of an elite — many of the world’s top physicists — living in confinement for the sake of secrecy in the most rustic conditions. They worked long hours under intense pressure. As much as the scientists relished the work, they needed respite too. Edith Warner served them tea and chocolate cake in the town of  Los Alamos, outside the secret fenced-in compound; and hosted sought after formal dinners for the physicists and their wives.

From its beginnings in a teacup, The Matter of Origins explores themes at once universal and human: how we measure, how we fathom, how we relate to one another and to the cosmos. The dancers are dynamic, emotive and precise in their interpretations of meaning inherent in this work. The play between the choreography, the ever-changing set and the score is wonderfully engaging.

The teacup fades and becomes a scene of Los Alamos itself. I recognize a slide from my own Neutron Trail – Elemental presentation (below).

Sign at Oak Ridge, TN Manhattan Project facility where uranium for the first atomic bombs was purified. Photo: Life/Ed Clark, 1945

Radiance of Radium – Mystery of Dark Matter

The scene, the score and the dancers shift to an evocative portrayal of Marie Curie and her primitive yet successful attempts at purifying radioactive radium (top photo).

The Matter of Origins fittingly begins with the early history of atomic science. But there’s lots of 21st century frontiers in the production. Thanks to the strength of the troupe and two years of creative rehearsals in consultation with physicists Drew Baden, William Dorland and Chris Monroe, sections on high energy physics, the big bang and dark matter are each distinct and memorable.

Liz Lerman Dance Exchange - The Matter of Origins. Photo: John Borstel © 2010

At the end of Act 1, while the company takes their bows, we’re applauding enthusiastically with hollering to be heard. But it’s only intermission.

Act 2 – Tea for Real

We line up to enter one of three tea rooms. Each tea room has 15 – 20 round banquet tables draped with white table clothes. We stand ceremonially around the four walls until instructed by our tea hostess/dancer Edith Warner to step forward and take the first empty seat. The ceremony naturally turns walking into a physics experiment about statistical motion.

At each table is a provocateur, who stimulates conversation. Our provocateur invites us to introduce ourselves and to pour tea for our neighbors. Soon we seem to be inside a Broadway musical as dancing waiters and waitresses pirouette to our tables laden with platters covered by white clothes.

“That must be the chocolate cake — Edith Warner’s famed recipe. Did my grandmother like it?,” I wonder to myself.

Liz Lerman Dance Exchange - The Matter of Origins. Photo: George Hagegeorge © 2010

But no, announced by a triumphant fanfare, each server unveils an iPad (photo above). We watch a video clip — a moment from Edith’s diary on the day of the atomic bomb test — and then discuss it around the table.

The next punctuation is the serving of Edith’s delicately mocha-tinged, dark chocolate cake.

Edith Warner dances with a real physicist. Moments later, I catch his eye and Prof. Chris Munroe, specialist in quantum entanglement and I exchange introductions. As the conversation continues around my table, I lean over to speak with Chris about physics, dance and the many ways between art and science can tango together.

I loved the production and was fortunate to view it twice. A work like this is special in the way it both entertains and opens pathways for cultural evolution. See it if you can.

* * *

Stay tuned — Liz Lerman has invited me to be a provocateur in Act 2 when The Matter of Origins plays again March 24-27, 2010 at Montclair State University (outside of NYC). Funding graciously provided by a grant to stimulate creative thinking across disciplines at MSU.

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One Response to Dancing Physics and Society: The Matter of Origins

  1. Pingback: Our Next Workshop: Enrico Fermi | Chicago Activism

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