Science is starting to become a hot commodity. There have been recent attempts to make research accessible to the masses. What people will probably find is that these cryptic scientific papers will make them feel like they don’t know how to read, which is not uncommon to how we feel when reading “the literature.” There is definitely a communication problem in the science community, both on the science-to-science and science-to-public ends. This is how Liz Lerman, a clever choreographer, felt. Deciding to address this issue through her own work, she created Ferocious Beauty: Genome, a dance about the human genome.
Wesleyan, a small, private university in Middletown, Connecticut, led in commissioning the genome dance project after Pam Tatge, director of the university’s Center for the Arts, saw Lerman’s troupe perform. Lerman, known for her choreography of political and social issues and her intergenerational troupe of dancers, mentioned her desire to do a dance based on the human genome. So Tatge introduced her to Laura Grabel, a professor of biology who was then dean of natural sciences and mathematics at Wesleyan. Grabel danced professionally herself while she was in graduate school and as a postdoctoral fellow, and she was intrigued by the idea of using dance to communicate science to the public.
As artists-in-residence at Wesleyan, Lerman and Dance Exchange members immersed themselves in the life of a campus already known for its strength in the arts as well as the sciences. They joined a class that Grabel teaches with philosophy professor Lori Gruen, called “Reproduction in the 21st Century,” inventing science in movement, such as a menstrual cycle dance. They also met with Wesleyan’s dance faculty and taught a master class for dance students.
To prepare themselves to create a dance about genetics research, the promises it makes, and the issues it poses, the dancers began getting to know the science faculty in their native habitat. Lerman filmed Grabel studying the development of mouse embryos. Dancer Ted Johnson-who eventually performed the role of pioneering monk- geneticist Gregor Mendel in the two-act, multimedia production-got acquainted with biology professor Laurel Appel’s room full of fruit flies.
…At first, Wesleyan’s science faculty was concerned about whether Lerman and her dancers could get the science right in their genome dance. The professors needn’t have worried. The choreographer and her troupe spent six months immersing themselves in the history and concepts of genetics and the Human Genome Project. “She asked such good questions,” Laurel Appel recalls. “She said, ‘Our toolkit is movement, costumes, lighting, and music. What is your toolkit?'”
In February 2006, Ferocious Beauty: Genome premiered at Wesleyan to a sold-out house and a rave review in the New York Times. The Dance Exchange also presented the performance at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts during February. The journal Science published a photo of the dancer playing Gregor Mendel, garbed in flowing white, guiding another white-clad dancer on a journey that retraces evolution’s footsteps, and the Chronicle of Higher Education reported on the singular production, which explores not only the history of genetics, but its implications for society, particularly in issues of ancestry, aging, and perfection.
We are looking forward to the next generation of doctors who will study radiology from their professors through interpretive dance.
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