What does it mean to move through time? Exploring science through modern dance

SYREN’s newest performance, “Ticktock,” explores complex facets of time with the help of modern dance. Photo by Nicolle Bennett. Courtesy of the Boston Museum of Science.

By Paige Colley
BU News Service

BOSTON — In a surprising union, an astrophysicist decided that the best way to handle complicated questions about physics was through modern dance. The piece, “Ticktock,” explored the hard questions surrounding time that have puzzled physicists since Albert Einstein’s discovery of general relativity.

“What does it mean to move through time?” astrophysicist Paul Sutter asked during a one-time performance at the Boston Museum of Science Wednesday. The astrophysicist plays a key role in the performance, narrating concepts and occasionally interacting with the dancers on stage. While Sutter’s contribution adds a theatrical element to the dance, the lack of sets or distinguished setting help cast the illusion that the performance can be happening at any time.

While it may sometimes be difficult to interpret the specific concepts of time portrayed in the dancers’ movements, it’s hard not to admire the physics in motion. In every lift the center of gravity must be found; in every spin there are centripetal forces at play; and in every leap gravity must momentarily be overcome.

The motions became as fluid as the passage of time. It felt as though barely a moment had passed, before the 50-minute performance came to a conclusion.There were motifs that could be recognized by any one; the arrow of time, the swinging pendulum, the dancers wiping sweat from their brows. But for those still a little lost, a Q&A session was held at the end to clarify their confusion.

This performance was almost two years in the making. 

For Kate St. Amand, the co-artistic director of the dance group SYREN, “Ticktock” is her second piece focused on a scientific concept. Her first, “Red and Blue, Bitter and Sweet” debuted in 2017. That piece was inspired by quantum mechanics, another difficult scientific concept.

“Both of those resonated with me because they’re astronomically complex to me,” St. Amand said.

But she also noted that they’re difficult concepts to see in day-to-day life.

“They make me curious,” she said. “And I think that’s exciting, when people are curious.”

One curiosity is the venue. A science museum seems a strange place to stage a dance performance, but for James Wetzel, the producer of adult programs at the museum, his goal when deciding what programming to produce is to find different ways of teaching.

In SYREN’s production of “Ticktock”, astrophysicist Paul Sutter is active on stage as the dancers perform; here, Rivkins Christopher flies into the air. Photo courtesy of the Boston Museum of Science

“I like to bring in the arts and live performances as much as possible,” Wetzel said. “It really helps tap into the different ways that we all learn.”

Wetzel first met Sutter last year while doing a live taping of Sutter’s podcast “Ask a Spaceman” in the museum’s planetarium. Wetzel liked how Sutter was able to explain complex topics in an accessible manner while also incorporating humor and said the museum would love to have him back again.

“I can bring a half dozen of my dancer friends, if you want,” Sutter said in response. The result? “TickTock.”

Wetzel said the show was a perfect example of what the Museum of Science wanted to achieve with performances, bringing in a diverse community to help adults understand science as it impacts them. 

“People may not leave wanting to be an astrophysicist, but hopefully they leave understanding the concept a little bit more, and have an interest to go out and continue to learn,” Wetzel said.

Indeed, the crowd was representative of a large swath of people. While there were older couples you may expect to see at an opera performance, there were also kids who looked as if they were dragged along by mom. Old or young, date night or girl’s night, the universal nature of time was appealing to many.

One attendee, Jennifer Goodell, who has a background in science and Latin dance, was not surprised by the choice to represent the physics concepts with modern dance, which she described as having less rules and thus more natural for the subject.

“This is modern physics, so modern dance seems like a natural tie,” Goodell said.

Sutter expressed the same sentiment when asked.

“There’s something that’s special about modern [dance], about the physicality, about the approach, that lends itself really well especially to these kinds of concepts in physics,” he said.

While the performance of “Ticktock” was a one-night event, Wetzel plans on keeping an eye on the dance group for future collaborations.

“It’s always important to me that people understand that science and art shouldn’t be kept separate, and that we get the best results … when we fuse together science, art and technology,” Wetzel said.

Add Comment

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.