Art, science and technology in harmony

7 October 2013

 Thinking with the Body at Wellcome Collection
[object Object]

Thinking with the Body at Wellcome Collection

Where do science, dance and choreography meet? Muriel Bailly looks into the ideas behind our current Thinking with the Body exhibition.

Science and technology have helped enhance artistic productions since the early beginning of humankind. Already in Ancient Greece, the study of the Golden Ratio by Pythagoras (570-495 BC) and his followers influenced a new generation of artists, among which was Phidias (480-430 BC), who is considered as the greatest sculptor of Classical Greece and is believed to have used the Golden Ratio in many of his sculptures, including the statues of Athena Parthenos and of Zeus at Olympia, which was one the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

In 15th century Italy, the work of the architect and engineer Filippo Brunelleschi demonstrated the geometrical method of perspective, leading to one of the most prolific periods in art history: the Italian Renaissance.

The use of science to enhance results is not only the privilege of graphic arts. Indeed, performing art is no exception. Scientific concepts have been applied to choreography for a few decades now. For instance, in 1939 for the American Chemical Society meeting in Baltimore a group of Maryland chemists decided to stage a “chemical ballet”. The choreography aimed to represent the formation, movement and dissociation of molecules and the nuclear spins of electrons etc.

Today, one of the best contemporary expressions of this dance/science relationship is the work of the internationally acclaimed choreographer Wayne McGregor, whose work ranges from choreography for the Royal Ballet to performances for the Cultural Olympiad in 2012, passing by his own productions for his company Wayne McGregor |Random Dance that he founded in 1992. The latter is what McGregor calls his “lab”, where he experiments with new ideas and produces his most edgy and quirky work.

McGregor has always been passionate about creativity and obsessed with the idea of communicating ideas through the body. In the past decade, he has become interested in exploring what happens in the process of creating dancing material. Where do the movements come from? Where do dancers take the inspiration from? In 2000 Wayne McGregor | Random Dance started a collaboration with artists and specialists from a wide variety of disciplines such as cognitive and social sciences as well as computer software designers in an attempt to understand the creative process of making choreography. The results of this research are presented to the public in Wellcome Collection’s autumn temporary exhibition: Thinking with the Body.

The collaboration between Wayne McGregor’s dancers and socio-cognitive researchers such as Phil Barnard and David Kirsh allowed them to identify patterns in the way dancers produce choreography materials. These patterns have been grouped in different categories that the company calls Choreographic Thinking Tools (CTTs). CTTs explore dancers’ mental imagery – acoustic, visual and body sensation – and help them become more aware of their creative potential. The twelve CTTs identified by Random Dance are presented in the gallery, where visitors are encouraged to explore them for themselves.

Technology is often used by McGregor to complement his scientific research on creativity and choreography. Lately, he has been working on developing a creative choreographic software combining artificial thinking and CTTs to an interactive object, conceived as an 11th dancer in the studio, that would stimulate dancers’ creativity. The latest version is called Becoming and is a centerpiece of the Thinking with the Body exhibition. Visitors are invited to engage with the 63-inch 3D screen and make their own choreography. If you feel a little shy, don’t turn this opportunity away: from Saturday 28 September former dancers from Random Dance will be in the gallery every Thursday, 6.00pm-9.00pm, and Saturdays-Sundays 2.00pm-5.00pm, to show you the way!

Thinking with the Body will immerse you into Wayne McGregor’s world and help you push the limit of your own creativity. If by the end of the exhibition your thirst for more of McGregor’s work has become unbearable, you can relax: the company’s latest show, called Atomos, is opening on the 9 October at Sadler’s Wells theatre, and Random Dance is collaborating with Wellcome Collection on a 6-week project for the Bloomsbury Festival – 19-20 October – that will culminate with the creation of a new choreographic performance involving participants from Shift at The Place and local students.

Muriel Bailly is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection.