March 4, 2010
Stanford dancers delve into the physics of falling
By Cynthia Haven
Katharine Hawthorne has fallen in love with gravity literally. The Stanford physics senior is using dance to explore the relationship, which she describes as "the unequivocal reality of bodies falling under gravity."
New Choreography in Concert: Winter Works, will be performed Friday and Saturday, March 5 and 6, at 8 p.m. in the Roble Dance Studio, 351 Santa Teresa St. on the Stanford campus.
The free event highlights the work of Hawthorne and four other students, as well as dance faculty members Aleta Hayes and Diane Frank. The students presenting their choreography are, besides Hawthorne, Alexandra McKeon, Samantha Smith-Eppsteiner, C. C. Chiu and Cuauhtemoc Peranda.
Hawthorne's piece is hardly gravity's first fling with the arts: Think of "Drunken Boxing," a Chinese martial arts style where the combatant falls and uses unpredictable weight shifts to confuse an opponent. Think of the whirling dervishes. More recently, falling has been a mother lode for choreographers, including modern dance pioneers Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, José Limón and Elizabeth Streb.
But Hawthorne's passion was not born on the dance floor it was born in the lab.
Last summer, she was an undergraduate researcher for physics Professor Mark Kasevich. She tested Einstein's Equivalence Principle that all objects, regardless of mass, fall with the same acceleration. In this case, the falling objects were a handful of rubidium atoms.
"After using principles of gravity and free-fall on an abstract, technical level in laboratory simulations, I decided to bring these ideas into the dance studio to explore their physical consequences," she wrote in an unpublished article.
"I mined the movement possibilities and emotional states resulting from repeatedly falling and witnessing another's repeated falls."
"In search of higher energy and emotional states," Hawthorne shaped a score where "dancers attempt to maintain a sustained feeling of vertigo by continually throwing their weight off balance." She was inspired by the "extreme involuntary movements of epilepsy" once known as the falling sickness. She wanted to push performers "beyond their ability to control their own motion." She asked them to do "physically unforgiving things" (such as "fall repeatedly on a piece of plywood, please").
The final work "Fell," includes a dozen onstage ladders, dramatic lighting, and a three-quarters round seating that puts the audience very close to the three dancers.
According to Frank, "The job of academia is to engage in discourse on subject; we dance our discourse." Their work is to "find formal structures that carry the results of our understanding."
Frank's own piece, "Sea Change: Leeward/Undercurrent/Dead Reckoning," explores the scientific and metaphorical aspects of the sea.
Hayes will debut and preview the work of the "Chocolate Heads" project in a piece titled "Ballet Avatar/Dub Ballet," a trio followed by a duet. The score was developed in Stanford's Institute for Diversity in the Arts' hiphop symphony project. "Chocolate Heads" combines dance, music and visual arts in performance on the Stanford campus, juxtaposing multiple styles and expressions of dance from ballet to Jamaican vernacular to Aztec to West African done to live music.
Freshman C.C. Chiu will dance a duet with her brother, senior Sam Chiu; her work is titled "Push." Junior Alexandra McKeon has choreographed a piece with 10 dancers called "Bloom Quartet." Junior Samantha Smith-Eppsteiner examines a social art phenomenon in her piece called "Post Secret."
Senior Cuauhtemoc Peranda's "Sacred Smoke" is "very much a post-modern spiritual invocation," said Frank. The Native American student's piece includes "live music scored and played by a Mariachi harpist."