Shen students contemplate fusion of dance and physics

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BY Molly Congdon
Gazette Reporter
CLIFTON PARK — When discovering the complexities of science, everyone has their own way that they absorb and comprehend the material best — something that makes it click, and stick.

Some wrestle through challenging equations on their own, others have to hear it in a lecture format while they scribble notes on sheets of lined paper. There are also those who benefit from a more visual style of learning that’s more outside of the box.

On the morning of March 30, the eyes of students at Shenendehowa High School were opened to a contemporary way to contemplate the concepts of physics during “ChoreoPhysics: Seeing the Science, Envisioning the Invisible,” a fusion between the refined art of dance and the notions of physics is a result of the collaboration of Ellen Sinopoli, the owner of Albany’s Ellen Sinopoli Dance Company, and University at Albany physics professor Keith Earle.

LIGHTBULB MOMENT

It all began in 2006 when Earle attended a performance by the Ellen Sinopoli Dance Company that featured the premiere of “Spill Out,” which was a collaboration between architecture and dance. As other members of the audience gazed at the beautiful lines and disciplined movements, Earle viewed the show on a more molecular level — the dancers reminded him of the behavior of electric and magnetic fields as well as electromagnetic radiation such as radio waves.

“Textbooks have static images, but the fact that we are trying to describe the process known as electro-dynamics means that they can only do a partial job,” Earle said. “I wanted to find a way to make the abstract aspects of physics such as the properties of intangible fields more understandable and present them to my students. It’s one thing when you’re looking at introductory physics to see a ball rolling down an inclined plane or dry ice connected to a spring moving back and forth, but when we get to talking about the nature of light it becomes much more difficult to have tangible pictures.”

Earle approached Sinopoli with the idea of partnership. It took four years to get the grant money, then schedules had to open up and finally a semester-long residency was arranged to make this dream a reality. The first performance took place at UAlbany last April, and was open to the public as well as students.

Then they came up with the idea of presenting this performance to high school students. In December, many local high schools came to UAlbany for a day of fun and learning. Since Shenendehowa was unable to attend, Earle and Sinopoli decided to bring “ChoreoPhysics” to them.

“In science, you’re given a definition through words or drawn imagery and you might see video of a type of machine-operated experience with a particular concept or law of physics, but you don’t often see it on the human body,” Sinopoli said. “Nor do you then see it taken to an artistic perspective; how does the artist utilize these components.”

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SHALL WE DANCE

The concepts of physics incorporated into the dance vary from simple ideas such as harmonic motion, where there’s a representation of the phenomena called “phase locking,” to symmetry breaking and the reaction center of a protein. “If you’ve ever seen pendulum clocks hanging together on a wall, you’ll note that they often swing together and that, in fact, is because vibrations from the clocks are transmitted along the wall on which they are hanging and they eventually come into phase,” Earle said.

“It’s important for students to realize that this is not something in the abstract, that only happens in the lab or the classroom or through formula — it’s a living, breathing entity,” Sinopoli said. “Everything we do is connected to some concept of physics … when we raise our hand up and down, when we change direction; it’s very much a part of our life. ‘ChoreoPhysics’ is another window of stepping into what it’s all about.”

The process was a two-way street. “Ellen and I move in different directions, but on a similar continuum,” Earle said. “Her process begins where mine ends; there is a useful tension between the goals of our artistic and scientific programs.”

“I like the phase that concludes the piece, which involves elements of rotation, precession, mutation and liberation; these are all aspects of motion that be used to analyze bodies that are rotating,” Earle said. “For instance, when the planets go around the sun there are orbits, and there is something very aesthetically appealing to me about how what essentially seems to be a simple phenomenon, when you look at it more closely it is just incredibly rich and diverse. I think that final segment really represents that serene mystery of intellectual and scientific exploration.”