[Paleopsych] New Scientist: Interview: A step in space-time
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Fri May 20 19:04:06 UTC 2005
Interview: A step in space-time
* 21 May 2005
* Valerie Jamieson
Mark Baldwin was born in Fiji and danced with the Royal New Zealand
Ballet before moving to the UK, where he developed his choreography
skills. He has been artistic director at the Rambert Dance Company in
London since 2002. Ray Rivers is professor of theoretical physics at
Imperial College London, where he investigates phase changes in the
early universe by studying solids and liquids. He is also a fan of
contemporary dance and has acted as science adviser to Rambert for
their newest work, Constant Speed
What do you think of art-science collaborations in general?
MB: Dreary and boring.
RR: Some of them anyway. They don't have a good history. I'm not
saying they aren't a good idea. They are often done with good
intentions, but it's just the way some of them have been realised. I
remember once seeing people dressed in yellow as quarks. Once in a
while, I drive past the hall where I saw them and my heart sinks every
MB: There has been a piece of theatre recently aimed at children about
tearing holes in space and getting lost in them. I didn't want to go
there. I'm not Dr Who.
How is Constant Speed, your new dance for Rambert, different?
MB: Constant Speed isn't worthy. It is gorgeous, cheap and nasty, and
RR: Right from the beginning we were dead against giving a physics
How did it come about?
MB: Jerry Cowhig from Institute of Physics Publishing had been to see
the company a few times, and he was looking for projects to commission
to celebrate Einstein year, which is this year. I know nothing about
physics so they suggested I talk to Ray.
RR: I was very interested in taking part for several reasons. First, I
like Mark's choreography. I like contemporary dance and I've seen
quite a bit of his work. The company is a good one too. Earlier I had
made an attempt with my wife, who is involved with music and dance, to
represent some basic ideas in physics with movement.
RR: Of all the art forms that one can use to express the notion of
here, now and what happens then, dance is probably the best. In some
sense, there are ways you can represent equations by movement because
they often describe movement. The equations and ideas in Einstein's
papers are very dynamical. Dance is better suited to the 1905 papers
than any of the other visual arts.
Were you given free rein to do anything you wanted?
MB: After conversations with Ray, Brownian motion and the
photoelectric effect seemed like the best places to start. I could
relate to these ideas because of their abstract nature.
RR: Einstein has done so many other things. It is very easy when
thinking of Einstein to drift into the cold war and his concerns about
nuclear weapons. But 1905 was a remarkable year and we were both very
keen to base things on it.
How did you start?
MB: You start in an empty studio, just yourself and a few notes from
Ray. Then you try to find a way of dealing with these things in
RR: I wrote some notes about the basic ideas, such as the speed of
MB: They were wonderful. And we did a lot of talking...
RR: ...trying to find visual metaphors.
MB: Ray bought me a battery-operated kids' toy called a bumble ball.
It is covered in blunt knobbles, and when you switch it on it bounces
all over the place quite randomly. It is a fabulous example of
Brownian motion, how a molecule behaves in space. That was great
because it set off a whole chain of thought choreographically about
what you might do.
To be quite primitive about it, I made up lots of movement based on
the idea that you have this thing bouncing around like crazy inside
your stomach and hips, and you're not sure which direction it is going
to pull you next. It is a matter of coming up with loads of ways of
improvising on that idea and then teaching them to the dancers, who
What about the photoelectric effect - how did you represent that?
RR: The photoelectric effect describes how light comes in chunks. Each
wavelength of light has a different energy and a different context.
MB: Blue is much stronger than red light. I get that. We use the
colour coding all the way through. The dance starts in white and then
we introduce red, which is a weak colour. Then we introduce a couple
of blue dancers and they dominate the whole scene.
Did you use props?
MB: To show light arriving in packets, we have an enormous hand-made
mirror ball. The mirrors are minuscule and they are stuck randomly
onto the ball so the reflections won't be where you expect. At first,
the audience will just see the reflections, and later the ball will be
lowered to the floor.
RR: I'd love to see how that works. I've only been to rehearsals in
the studio without any lighting or set.
How did you illustrate E = mc^2?
RR: Special relativity and the notion of a constant speed of light
don't lend themselves well to simile or metaphor. The nearest I could
come up with is taking something built up in a sequential way and then
viewing it simultaneously.
MB: Choreographically what I've done is take long phrases of movement
in a strip along the studio and squash them. You don't know that's
what the dancers do. But I know, and they know. That's how I came up
with that set of movements.
Sounds pretty challenging.
MB: It was reasonably scary. I'd gone into most other projects knowing
something. But I really didn't know anything about this. I never did
physics at school. I trained to be a dancer and was much more
interested in the arts. But when I did twig as to how to use
Einstein's ideas, it was quite liberating.
RR: At first, I was a bit nervous because I'm such a fan of Mark's
choreography. Here is someone whose work you like, and the last thing
you want to do is suggest something that compromises their work.
Did you check it for scientific accuracy?
RR: I didn't stand around saying, "No, no it's not like that." I
provided information for Mark, but it is his integral vision.
Will anyone watching the performance be able to pinpoint all
MB: Probably not.
RR: I doubt it. It would be disappointing if they did. The main thing
about Constant Speed is that it's a great piece of choreography. As
artistic director of a commercial company, Mark has to get as many
bums on seats as possible.
MB: You don't listen to a piece of music and think, "Ooh yes, I got
that." Art doesn't work like that. Dance gathers ideas and comes up
with its own translation of them. It's all quite ambiguous and you can
read things into it.
RR: Brownian motion is the one thing anyone who is familiar with the
1905 papers will recognise; no other dance work uses the body's
randomness as part of the choreography.
How did you choose the music?
RR: Einstein's work of 1905 started off with the classical physics
tradition of the 19th century and distorted it in a way that didn't
break the underlying ideas. So for us, there were two possibilities
with the music. We could take an early 20th-century composer whose
music deconstructs 19th-century classical tradition. Or we could pick
someone in the classical tradition and then deconstruct it through
MB: At first we listened to lots of different music. From Arnold
Schoenberg to the Strauss waltzes. That was my way of finding a path
to where we might go.
RR: Björk even came up at one stage.
What did you go for?
MB: Our conductor Paul Hoskins came up with the idea of using Franz
Lehar from 1905 because there are lots of very interesting ideas
RR: Lehar didn't just compose frothy music like The Merry Widow.
MB: I had the mad notion that Einstein might have been listening to
Lehar when he came up with the constant speed of light.
Do you have a favourite bit of the dance?
RR: I just thought it was tremendous. But that's the problem with
being a fan already. It is a very athletic piece but there is an
unpredictability the first time you see it.
MB: There is a bit at the beginning for 10 women and I like it because
it is quite formal, yet random at the same time. It seems quite clever
and witty and you are never sure what it's going to do next, and the
dancers dance it really well. Actually I like it all. It's not a long
piece, only 27 minutes.
Were you setting out to popularise physics?
MB: Because of the size of the theatres we go to, in some ways we are
popularising these ideas. Physicists don't zoom up and down the
country performing to 55,000 people a year. We do. We can't help
saying, "Hey, look at this, it can be fun, it can be sexy." You've got
all these amazing dancers wearing incredibly glamorous costumes and
moving like lightning all over the place. There is something warm and
friendly about it. It is not like physics.
But education does come into it. We teach workshops to about 6000
young people a year.
RR: Is that one area where you might be a bit more pedagogic about the
MB: Yes. It's interesting when you teach young people and they have to
physically interpret an idea. They have a much better chance of
grasping that idea in a much more detailed fashion later on. Our
education team is quite excited about these sorts of workshops. I'm
really pleased because it is the kind of thing that I think
contemporary dance should be doing. It should be trying to find links
into other worlds because they enrich ours.
Do you worry what physicists think?
RR: No. I think quite a few physicists who do go will be disappointed.
We are a somewhat reductive race and I can see them coming along with
their tick boxes. Sorry, that's a bit rude.
What have you got out of it?
MB: What I've realised working on this project is that physics is in
everything, absolutely everything - the way light arrives, the way our
realities are different, the way time is different to each person and
the only constant thing is the speed of light. The whole universe is
about physics and that is a fantastic thing for a dance audience. I've
been involved in dance for 30 years and the people coming to our show
won't know anything about physics beforehand.
Are there other areas of physics that might lend themselves to dance?
RR: There are all sorts of things. Maybe a potted history of motion,
starting with the way our notion of friction dominated our basic
understanding of the way the world worked. If Aristotle had had
rollerblades, he would have come to a different way of viewing the
MB: That's interesting because it is what choreography is about. In
society, dance doesn't seem to be as important as music. So thinking
about all the profound ways that motion affects the universe is a
lovely pat on the back for the dancers.
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