Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Dance To String Theory

It is no secret that I've made fun of many of these efforts to incorporate physics with dance. I'm sure they are of high artistic caliber, but I question the "reason" for doing such a thing, and the effectiveness of it. In other words, if I don't tell you what this is all about, can you decipher it for yourself?

I've mentioned before several attempts at using various physics topics or principles as a dance motif. Read here, here, here, and here. Add this one to the list.

The choreographer has been working with Andrew Melatos, a theoretical physicist at Deakin. Melatos is an expert in string theory, the strand of particle physics that attempts to reconcile quantum mechanics and general relativity. The pair's collaboration has led to Multiverse, an "innovative, animated dance work" that is being workshopped before a premiere next year.

Stewart says Multiverse - taken from the term coined by 19th-century philosopher William James, who put forward the idea of multiple parallel universes - will be a combination of live dance and three-dimensional animation, requiring the audience to wear 3-D glasses.
That sounds like a hoot!

I'd like to ask this: without invoking or being told about the "physics" behind the dance, can you enjoy the performance as is? If yes, then how come one doesn't sell it as such?

I again am curious about why these things are done. I mean, sure, they'll argue that this is another way to "visualize" various aspects of physics, and visualize this from an artistic point of view. But (i) why; (ii) is this really accurate; (iii) is this really necessary? Did someone who had no idea about physics saw this and suddenly got inspired to either study physics, or support physics? Did someone who didn't quite understand a certain aspect of physics suddenly understands it better after seeing such a performance?

I'm not saying this shouldn't be done. I'm just awfully curious on why and what are the consequences of such a thing. After all, a lot of effort, time, and money were spent for one of these things. It has to mean SOMETHING!



Anonymous said...

Have you ever seen Phillip Glass's "Einstein on the Beach"?


I saw the current revival a few months ago. Not only an amazing work of art, but I have to say I saw some real allusions not only to Einstein's life but also his work. Very abstract and vague, of course, but I think it worked really well.

Doug Applegate said...

Perhaps we're judging these artistic works by the wrong standard. Why does anyone need to see the dance, and from that alone, understand something about Physics?

Let's make an analogy to astronomical photography. Hubble treasury pictures stand on their own as beautiful art. But for those of us who know even a little astronomy, we can appreciate the art even more because we recognise the signatures of physical processes. No member of the public is going to learn anything about star formation from looking at the "Pillars of Creation" without some explanation.

So if the choreographer has used some part of string theory to generate ideas for a wonderful dance, we can enjoy it on two levels. That is, if the choreographer has understood and represented something fundamental from the theory. And a dance enthusiast can use an interpreter or show notes to get a small peak at that second level of enjoyment.

Of course, the number of people who enjoy modern dance as an art form AND understand string theory is vanishingly small (but non-zero: I know at least one dancer-physicist!). But this is an opportunity to enlarge that overlap. A dance enthusiast, who is otherwise wilfully ignorant of any and all science, may be motivated to understand the theory even a little so that they too can appreciate the work on two levels (the organizers could easily survey to the audience to find out if this actually happens).

Or, some of us jaded physicists, dragged kicking and screaming into the theater, may develop an appreciation for new forms of art.