Dance Brings Celestial Science to the Stage

RIT/NTID Dance Company participated in the Light and Winter Festival in Ithaca in 2009. Photo by Erin Thomas.
Story Highlights: 
  • Six students from the RIT/NTID Dance Company will begin performances in the fall of 2012.
  • Made possible with a $150,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.
  • The project is a collaboration with three RIT colleges: NTID, the College of Science and the B. Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences.
  • Backdrops will be educational and designed using scientific data to show things such as gravitational waves and black holes.

Take the beauty and grace of dance, throw in some stunning images based on scientific principles as backdrops, mix them with a healthy dose of astrophysics, and what do you get?

Astrophysics and Dance: Engaging Deaf Students in Science Education.

The concept, to become reality with a $150,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, is intended to take heady topics such as black holes and gravitational waves, boil down the scientific concepts involved with help from images and sounds, and relate those movements into dance before audiences around the country.

The talents and unlikely partnerships behind this endeavor involve three colleges at Rochester Institute of Technology: the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, the B. Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences and the College of Science.

Manuela Campanelli, a professor in the school of mathematical sciences and director of RIT’s Center for Computational Relativity and Gravitation, is the project’s principal investigator. Campanelli is an RIT astrophysicist working on simulating some of the most extreme phenomena in the universe, such as the collision of super massive black holes.

Although it’s not the first time the center has worked with artists, it is their largest project involving the arts. For years, RIT has been catering to “left brained” students who think logically, as well as “right brained” students who tend to be more artistic and creative. Innovative projects have attempted to merge the two camps to provide revolutionary ideas.

“This is an example of how you can put the right and left brain together, and promote science that goes across boundaries,” Campanelli says. “What I hope audiences will come away with is the understanding of the scientific harmony that there is in the universe and understanding how the laws of physics work. Science is beautiful in many respects, and we hope to capture the beauty that is behind the equations. We want to communicate how science works to the general public. And one way to do this is to stimulate emotions through spectacular visual effects that use state-of-the-art computer simulations.”

Thomas Warfield, NTID’s director of dance, conceived and will direct and choreograph the project. It is written for six students, with two understudies. The students will be from the RIT/NTID Dance Company, a mix of deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing students, with performances beginning in the fall of 2012.

“Our idea is to engage the general public to think about science from a different perspective,” Warfield says. “In science and math, it’s a very thinking, cerebral process. In the areas of dance, movement and the arts, there’s the added emotional, sensory experience. Bringing those two together, you’re seeing science from a different perspective. We’re hoping to open up areas of understanding science in a broader context.”

As out of this world as this collaboration seems, it’s not Warfield’s first experience merging dance with astrophysics. Warfield worked on a project with noted astronomer Carl Sagan prior to Sagan’s death in 1996.

“He was very involved with quantum physics and trying to communicate with extraterrestrials through movement,” Warfield says. “That was how I started to see this synergy between the arts and science. That spurred my interest.”

About three years ago, Warfield and Joe Bochner, professor and chair of NTID’s Department of Cultural and Creative Studies, attended a conference about science and the arts in New York City. Brian Schwartz, organizer of the conference, and Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium there, inspired Bochner and Warfield to create a project involving dance and science.

“It was fascinating to see all of these things going on with theater and music and partnering with the arts,” Warfield says. “But there were not a lot of things going on with dance.”

After the conference, Warfield borrowed a 900-page book on astrophysics. “I said, ‘OK, I’ll try to read a little of it.’ But it was very interesting, explaining movement. That’s what dance is about, too: the interplay between time and space.”

Two years ago, Warfield and the RIT/NTID Dance Company participated in the Light and Winter Festival in Ithaca, where scientific principals were used with dance.

“It went over so successfully, people were really taken by it,” Warfield says. “In a way, dance amplified the ideas about astrophysical science. It gave a different perspective for people.”

Bochner says the grant was received to develop the dance and perform it before audiences that will be deaf or hard of hearing, as well as hearing audiences.

“Comprehension and learning for deaf individuals occur largely through the visual system,” Bochner says. “What we’re doing is providing visual access to scientific information as well as an aesthetic experience. We’re hoping to engage them, make the presentation enjoyable and entertaining, because after all, if people aren’t engaged somehow in the content, there’s no way that they’re going to learn it.”

Bochner expects the show to provide explicit connections between the performance and the scientific principles it will attempt to illustrate.

“Depending on the age of those in the audience, they’ll probably take away different messages,” Bochner says. “But even younger children will be able to appreciate what’s happening on stage.”

Hans-Peter Bischof, professor of computer science at RIT’s B. Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences, will be providing “visualization of scientific data” during the performance. Images he will create will represent the scientific principle connecting it with the dance and displayed on a backdrop on stage.

He can show what a galaxy looks like, a gravitational wave or a black hole merger. “They all will be visually appealing,” he says.

But a challenge exists. How to you show an image of something no one has ever seen?

“We use the data we have and our skill sets to create a visual representation that makes sense to your brain,” Bischof says. “A modern painting may not make sense to your brain. But one that has a figure in it makes a lot of sense.”

With his new role providing images to this dance performance, how much does Bischof consider himself an artist?

“Absolutely zero,” he says. “I watch plays, that’s it. But this collaboration is an interesting thought, and I believe strongly there is something to it. This group is a very unusual group.”

Campanelli agrees.

“It has been a joyful experience being able to communicate with artists, which is a different culture than the scientific culture,” she says. “The scientific culture doesn’t care so much about arts – it cares more about rigor and results. Art culture cares more about beauty and harmony. Both, though, have components of the other, but sometimes they are hidden. I’m very excited about this.”


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