A Dancer’s Perspective: Science and Public Engagement. Experiencing the World via Movement, Perception, Thoughts, and Emotions

Does your Body Think? Do your Neurons Dance? And who is the choreographer?

The brain is everywhere in the body. How can one set up a dialogue with an audience so that they may experience their brain moving, dancing, working and playing, and understand dance as a language that goes directly to the brain?

Our bodies are the vehicles for us to sensorially enter the world. Ask a neuroscientist to define “mind” and they have no clear thing to pin down. There were philosophers, then psychiatrists, and now great discoveries in seeing the pictures in the brain, seeing what makes things go off, decay, or become more plastic, make connections.

We get notes from our bodies. "Oh, I’m a little chilly, just my feet." Well that’s because I’m barefoot. Maybe I should put on some shoes, or maybe just socks. Dance notes: a little more to the left. Not so fast.

Channel the eclipse.

Really was there anything more incredible than that? Did I really feel the tidal pulls of the moon? My feet in gravity, by legs, torso floaty, effervescent as the light changed from normal summer daylight to a yellowish tint, then yellow-green, green-gray, grey…. this is where my body sensed a depleted state, like all the joy was being sucked out of the world. Then darkness, a bright spray of silver halo, like the moon was wearing a headdress. Perhaps a costume idea. Animals went wild, stars came out and then everything grew still as the stars came out.

You are going off topic.

I’m just being tangential.

In Sweetwater, Tennessee, in that moment of TOTALITY, we were all there in this vastness, being affected on a micro level. And it’s lasted. My body and mind took note.

Can we choreograph the neuronal activity in our heads? I say, feet: go forward. Can I get my mind to move on? I’m dwelling on this moment.

Blink. New thought. Click.

And do we have control of what our neurons are up to? I went to the lab of Dr. Timothy Elmore at City University of New York and observed his subjects sleeping and watched as subjects’ brainwaves were being etched on graph paper. How beautiful to witness graphically the phenomenon of synchronized waves—without even trying. We can’t get into our skulls and orchestrate the TADA moments. We can conduct and orchestrate our lives, but can we even attempt to see the conduction of synapses releasing ions, and how for eons this gorgeous and sometimes ugly symphony keeps time?

As a choreographer and director, I’m in the business of arranging time and space and bodies, opening up to hidden narrative. I give the performers imaginative tasks. I form a loose storyboard, then go deeply inside, puzzling out physical investigation of material, discerning what rings true, what feels like it’s not coming from a bag of tricks, mental, historical, or cultural ruts.

Is it possible to choreograph our neuronal activity? How do we stake ground, set up parameters, imaginative structures that allow our minds shift? That’s the dance of neurons. But the mind — it’s like vapor. We breathe in present and past. It’s in constant motion. Devising content is a matter of honing in on what feels right and has the potentiality of truly interacting with audience members. Via performative action we extend alive moments (crafted somehow) to your life.

I wonder how we absorb, soak in experience. How we let it in after sending it out, so that the artifacts of performance are not dead. How on a cellular level we can move what happened past the memory and into the present. Each performance is temporal. Both audience and players feel the buzz of fertile talents coming together.

Post performance, the particles of connections are perhaps stretched: scattered to the wind and landing in new places. The audiences/ spectators/ experiencers change what is happening, gave a spin to our dialogue, become a live component. What transpired respired and hopefully inspired. With live performance, it’s not like a painting or sculpture you can keep coming back to stand before, Hopefully you see something new, a relational shift to the object over time, with age, with experience. What is transferred in live art is temporal, but can be lasting. I love when I hear from someone who attended a show that they still feel the piece--that they were moved. Moved to some new place. Something shifted.

When sensuality, perception and thought work in concert, we experience art.

Brains are a prerequisite for movement.

This winter I participated in Asad Raza “Root Sequence Mother Tongue” at the Whitney Museum, part of the Whitney Biennial.

Asad brought up the term con-sociality, con-sensuality.

Being with. Art that is with the spectator/ audience / visitor

This is what I’m working towards now. Let art creep up on you. Let it be invisible.

Let it flow through your brains. Let is spark new connections and plasticity. Let there be a spontaneous exchange and engagement in the moment.

A conversation that is casual, seemingly off the cuff, not forced, but smart and direct, can lead you to new places, a dab in memory, and a relational cross-reference.

The whole of making is a continuum, with one thought process embedded in the next. Some ideas have duration, some lead to the next. Small ideas, big ideas. Art that is with the spectator. We are all one neural brain, a beating heart, our soul and guts orb out.

Navigating this territory of experienced-based art, I’m devising live “formats” through which the audience member/visitor/ person is caught off-guard, even if they are the kind of spectator whose ‘normal’ is to judge. They think they know what category you fall in based on prior knowledge, history, where we culturally are. I like to see that artifice fall away. It is now you are in. The second you are judgy of it, the present falls away.

The Brain Piece, my latest work, started in conversation and live-action drawings by Dr. Ed Lein of the Allen Institute for Brain Science My film Dance of the Neurons (co-directed with Eric Siegel) plays with layers of neuronal activity and synaptic connections. And the live piece, I hope, allows audiences to interact with their own brain working and playing, and envision brain activity, while relating to the world.

The human body is an incredible sensory organ perceiving through interaction with the world. Call it mirror neurons or tactile empathy, a rose is a rose. We present an opportunity with a view, and care that audience members have some stake in what is being performed. Even saying “performed” is an indicator of it being us up there on onstage, and you watch, and indicative that you are there to judge based on prior knowledge, to be entertained. But engagement is what I’m going for. The Brain Piece is a place were we meet. Your journey is your own; your experience is your own. I mentor my dancers and docents to open up, to be real people onstage. So it’s not a form that we are performing, but porous possibility-- chance to be immersed.

The goal is to set up formats that allow the viewer to insert themselves into the art--to have a tactic agreement with the performers: we are discovering together, engaged in a conversation that is new and making us think, feel, in a novel way. Can movement do this?

The brain response is immediate and balanced by the construct of being part of a larger brain than your own.

I ask of the audience to be in the present: “You are the proud owner of your brain. It does everything and is uniquely tailored to you. Log in. Collect your own data. Connect the dots.”

I have no idea what goes on in people’s minds.

So often we go through life doing things on autopilot and realizing nothing. I love the book Alain De Botton, The Art of Travel. He believes we can travel far and wide in our own bedroom. I often do this exercise. Change the location of the chair. Which way it is facing. Contextually what is real now, albeit against the background of culture, history and interplay / intertwining of relationships.

Creating The Brain Piece, I realized that we are not individual brains in an isolated field.

We are coming altogether in this time and space to note where we are, the textures underfoot, the wisps of wind, the body temperature in contrast to the air or water temperature. Small eddies of thought; small currents of feelings are impacting the field of view. You, the “spectator”, are involved deeply. More than dipping your toe in these waters, you are immersed. More than licking your finger to ascertain which way the wind blows, you are immersed. Surrounded. You can be blown away by an idea (or a movement). It can soothe or disrupt.

I will not block your view. You have this vista. I will turn sideways and make myself so skinny that I become a line, a framing device. Note the vast and the macro. A giant AHA or a shrug: hmmm. So that’s how it is, or could be, different from what it was a moment ago. If you come to a performance, or installation, you’ve agreed to an intervention, or invention. We are doing this together: performer (or docent) and you. Engrained patterns might fall away, shifting things in a granular way, enticing the grains of recognition to re-cognate.

The science of this has a lot of names: consciousness, cognition, sensorial awareness, perception, and though patterns and blood flow in the brain can be charted, the mind more like vapor. The brain is everywhere in the body.

Title from Siobhan Burke’s article on Oberfelder in the New York Times