Far From Equilibrium Mixes Science and Art

What happens when an astrophysicist and a choreographer collaborate?

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Far From Equilibrium being performed at the Museum of Science and Industry 2015 (Photo: Topher Alexander)

Science and art are generally thought to play different roles in society.  People often think of science as a complex combination of rigorous investigation, creative innovation, and quest to understand the mechanics of our world.  We study solar eruptions, develop faster-growing crops, and predict the weather.  On the other hand, art is often seen as a way to create beauty, explore ideas like shape and color, and understand our own humanity.

But what happens when the border between art and science is blurred?  What happens when an artist and a scientist collaborate? Megan Rhyme and I explored these questions as we developed our science-inspired dance, "Far From Equilibrium: An Artistic Exploration of Turbulence".   

Megan and I met last fall at the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) at an event jointly sponsored by Northwestern University's Science in Society and the MSI's Art of Science Learning program. On paper, we don't have much in common.  Megan is a choreographer and dancer.  I am an astrophysicist.  But, as soon as the two of us started talking, it quickly became clear that we are driven by many of the same interests and questions. For instance, we both enjoy thinking about the role that creativity plays in science and art. We wonder -- are scientific creativity and artistic creativity the same thing?  We are also both intrigued by interdisciplinarity.  How do people from different fields establish a shared language, a common goal, and shared values? To explore these questions, we decided to create a dance about turbulence.

So what is turbulence?

Turbulence is most places in the universe: in cream stirred into coffee, in the raging, swirling flames of forest fires on Earth, and even in massive explosions of energy from the surface of our Sun.  However, this chaotic, complex, unstable twisting and stretching of fluid is mysterious, even to the scientists who study it.

Turbulence theory today is a strange blend of empirical observations, hand-waving argument, and hard-core statistics.  Even answering simple questions about the turbulent flow of everyday fluids like air or water can be profoundly difficult.  However, when rendered visible, turbulent flows are mesmerizing and extremely beautiful.  To me, this combination of mystery and beauty makes turbulence one of the most intriguing problems in physics.

Starting the conversation

Megan and I spent several months talking about the science of turbulence before rehearsals even began.  We started by discussing everyday fluids like air and water.  Both are "fluids" because they have two basic properties.  First, the molecules in the fluid must hit each other and exchange energy almost continually.  Second, a fluid must flow when a force is applied along it, even if that force is very small.  Many fluids in nature, like the air in hurricanes or the water in a raging river, are turbulent.

Our conversations centered around characteristic motions of turbulent fluids, such as vorticity. Vorticity is the local rotation of a fluid. Sometimes fluid vorticity is easy to see, like when a cream in coffee moves in complex, swirling patterns or when a tornado rages through the sky. We discussed a wide variety of topics, from chaos theory to energy transfer in turbulence, and I realized how lucky I was to be working with a choreographer who wanted to delve into science so deeply.

Developing a common language

As our conversation developed, we found it followed a pattern: topic, questions, clarification, relation, new topic.  Although I began each cycle by bringing up some specific facet of turbulence, it developed into an exciting and dynamic two-sided conversation.  Megan asked clarifying questions, forcing me to stop using jargon, fill in missing details, and deploy new metaphors. She asked about associations between different parts of turbulence theory or related our topic to modern dance, the body or the human experience. This helped us understand connections, both within turbulence theory and between science and art.  Eventually, our rush of ideas flowed to another facet of turbulence and the cycle would repeat.     

As a scientist, this process was exciting because, by looking through Megan's eyes, I saw turbulence from a new point of view. Certain properties of turbulence began to seem more fundamental or intuitive than others.  Through Megan's focus on the corporeal, I began to see a new, intensely physical kind of turbulence.

I also began to see Megan, herself, in a new way.  Megan's questions and reactions revealed her personal priorities, artistic values and thinking about modern dance. For instance, her phrasing of a question about vorticity could show me that she favors connected, flowing dance movements. Even the tiniest details of our conversations seemed important.

Slowly, we began building a set of questions, analogies, and connections between dance and turbulence.  These concepts revolved around specific themes and connections. One important connection that started to emerge during this time was "form and motion".  Within the theme of "form and motion", we saw an analogy between dancers' bodies and vorticity.  Dancers' bodies have forms, but do those forms create motion or does the motion create the forms?  In turbulence, how do various forms of the vorticity field produce motion and energy transfer and vice versa?  This type of connection started to show us what the dance would look like.

Overall, our early conversations about turbulence and dance were the foundation on which we built "Far From Equilibrium". We established a complex shared vocabulary that allowed rehearsals to flow freely once they began.  But shared vocabulary isn't enough for a successful collaboration -- these conversations also helped us to develop a shared set of values.    We began to trust each other.          

Translating into dance

We started rehearsals in June 2015 using an improvisational, experimental approach.  Megan's process of creating a dance is very different than the traditional choreographic process.  Traditionally, the choreographer plans each movement ahead of time and each of these movements is based on transitioning between certain shapes or forms.  For instance, ballet dancers don't generally have much autonomy; their task is to execute each form as flawlessly as possible. On the other hand, modern dance gives the choreographer the freedom to choose her own goals, techniques, and processes.  In fact, choosing how to make a dance can be a key part of the modern choreographer's artistry.  In Megan's case, her goal is often not to plan the individual movements of the dancers, but to direct the theme of those movements.  Each dancer is responsible for the interpretation of Megan's directions and the selection of specific movements.

During each of these first rehearsals, I explained a chosen topic in turbulence to the dancers using videos and images to bring it to life.  My goal was not to "instruct" the dancers as if they were students in a traditional classroom but to engage them and start a conversation. I wanted the dancers not only to ask questions but also to understand the limitations of my own knowledge.  After the discussion, Megan would direct the dancers to physically explore some specific aspect of the day's topic.  The dancers could work with both the direct information from me and the reinterpretation and focusing of that information from Megan.  We all asked each other questions and talked about what was happening.  From a team of two, we became a collaborative team of nine.

Megan and the dancers experimented with asking and answering various questions about turbulence through dance.  Using their well-developed sense of physical intuition, the dancers explored flow and scale, the energy cascade, and whether or not turbulence has memory. During these explorations, certain dance structures began to seem important. For instance, one key structure was called "joining and leaving groups".  In its original version, dancers joined each other and danced using a spiral vocabulary. Although the dancers could join together freely, Megan and I placed a constraint on the motions: if a group grew to three dancers, one had to leave.  Spirals are the dance analogy that we developed for vorticity, so this prompt created a dance element reminiscent of interacting vortices.

Over time, we loosened the constraints of the prompt and the dancers developed a more complex motion vocabulary.  With these freedoms, "joining and leaving groups" morphed into a new structure called "full turbulence".  "Full turbulence" has many of the characteristics of fluid turbulence:  rotation, complexity, energy distributed over many different sizes of movement, transfer of that energy, and sensitivity to initial conditions.

As dance structures like this developed, the outline of the dance began to emerge.  Each of our dance structures was related to one or more concepts in turbulence, some even explored multiple characteristics of turbulence simultaneously.

Far From Equilibrium

The final dance was a blend of improvisational structures and pre-choreographed pieces.  The fine details of the dancers' movements are unpredictable each time they perform.  Our goal was not to faithfully represent turbulence but to give the audience an intuitive handle on its character. During its performance at MSI, “Far from Equilibrium” invited audience members to immerse themselves in the beauty of turbulence and reflect on its role in everyday life.

So, what have we learned from this project?  What actually happens when an artist and a scientist collaborate?  There's no simple answer. Overall, we found our interdisciplinary collaboration generated an explosion of new themes, questions, and connections.  Themes like uncertainty, form and motion, the generation of complexity from simple rules, and the analogy between forces in fluid mechanics and emotion in dance not only informed the dance itself but also affected my research and Megan's ideas about dance.

Performing "Far From Equilibrium" generated new questions about representation, audience experience and the use of art as a tool. We also were amazed by the power of our collaborative relationship. Megan and I were lucky to find each other.  We started our collaboration driven by shared questions and our similar mindsets meant that we didn't have to make many tough compromises.  Even so, communication was critical to our project.

Connecting with each other imbued Megan and me with a feeling of openness and a desire to connect with new collaborators.  Since our first performance, we've begun collaborating with a composer, Roger Zare, who is currently composing turbulence-inspired music to accompany the dance.  We've also assembled a group of researchers from different fields -- science, music, engineering, and dance -- to design an interactive research environment in which audience members can explore their own questions.  Together, our dance, Roger's new composition, and the immersive research environment make up our new show, Far From Equilibrium: Curiosity, Creativity, Uncertainty.  Come explore with us this summer!

“Far From Equilibrium: Curiosity, Creativity, Uncertainty" will be performed June 24-26th at Links Hall in Chicago (tickets are available on Ticketfly) and as part of Chicago's 2016 Night Out in the Parks July 8th, 10th, and 24th at the 12th Street Beach ( Night Out admission is free!).

Far From Equilibrium is a co-creation of Megan Rhyme, Elizabeth Hicks, Roger Zare, Mary Wu, Nick Marchuk, Steve Tarzia, Andy Hudson, Brandon Waybright, David Sophik, Jacob Snodgrass, Chrissy Martin, Gretchen Soechting, Sara Nelson, Monica Carrow, Eve Chalom, megan amal, Stephanie Anderson, Jessica Morales, Brady Richards, Manuel Ramos, Conner Ray, Sarah Gottlieb, Kathryn Hetrick, and Jacqueline Dennis; supported by the American Physical Society, Nights Out in the Parks and various generous individuals. Find out more on the project website.

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