The Beauty in Scienceposted on February 10th, 2010 by Wayne McGregor
As a choreographer, my primary aspiration has been in the communication of ideas through the medium of the body. Attempting to make sense of the world in which we live and commenting upon it, through choreographed language and form. Choreographic communication is dependent on placing the body as the central interface for the assimilation of experience and understanding. We understand the world through the body, our senses working in collaboration to generate emotion and create informed meaning.
This has naturally led me to an ongoing fascination with the “technology of the body,” not only from a physiological perspective, probing the organism to test what a 21st-century body is actually physically and psychologically capable of, but as importantly being actively curious about its evolutionary path. This open and thirsty curiosity parallels contemporary scientific investigation. With the developments in molecular biology, biochemistry, and genetics, there have been major advancements in sports science, nutrition, dancer training, injury prevention, and rehabilitation making dancers stronger, more flexible, healthier, and better able to perform physically demanding and challenging work. The capacity of the dancers instrument—the body—has been radically enhanced, improved, and evolved. The opportunity I have to utilize these augmentations in choreography provides a new dynamic stimulus.
At the same time, the revolutionary influence of biologist Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection continue to pervade our contemporary culture. From Richard Dawkin’s concept of the “meme,” through the development of self-replicating mutating systems for viral marketing, to state-of-the-art genetic classification, Darwin’s unique vision has been and continues to make a provocative impact. In its most basic form, this approach to evolutionary research—collecting, systemizing, classifying, and labelling information for it to be interrogated, to accumulate a body of knowledge that then bears insight, through translation and interpretation, is very close to the creative process.
My work is very much a continuum of research, with the individual pieces a marker in time. Each work does not attempt to be conclusive or final but presents fluid transitions of understanding to be interpreted individually by each member of an audience. After all, we all bring our own particular cognitive frameworks to bear on what we experience. When creating work, I walk through the data collected for the piece and immerse myself in the literature and ideas of that investigation. I don’t then attempt to represent that literally on stage or look for explicitness. I am interested in the work emerging from the boundaries of the investigation where the piece becomes a metaphor for the process of research itself and how it is analogous to physical thinking. However abstract the connections are perceived to be, without the research that particular piece could not have been made and would not exist in the way that it does. Research and art making, as interconnected, inseparable as the dancer is from the dance.
Often, dance is described as being essentially a nonverbal means of communication. Yet so much of my experience inside and outside of the studio, in the practice of making, is not only verbally based but depends upon a shared complex cognitive space between the dancer and the choreographer, the choreographer and the collaborators and the work itself and the audience. Improvisation, visualization, mind maps, generative tasks, dual tasks, rhythm exercises, musicality, responding visually to stimuli, constructing mathematical scores, reversing movement phrases quickly, locating yourself and several bodies in complex relationships with space, all demand a clear connection between the brain and the body, an implicit synergy and empathy between cognitive capacity and physical translation. This kinaesthetic intelligence is uniquely highly developed in dancers and choreographers; it’s embedded in our training, our daily practice. However, like any other skill or technique, it can and should be exposed, extended, and built upon. A new, evolving understanding becomes the scaffolding for artistic risk and experimentation.
If the art of dancing and dance making then is essentially a kinaesthetic one, offering a deep connection between the mental and the physical, it is a natural progression to see what cognitive science has to offer the choreographer. With arts researcher Scott deLahunta, I co-organised a series of meetings across the country and in Paris with experts in the field of cognitive science: neuroscientists, psychologists, brain researchers, etc., to discuss this concept of the nonverbal and kinaesthetic intelligence. One of my questions was how it could be possible to neurologically communicate? Could several brains be wired up to work creatively together without ever exchanging a word? It soon became crystal clear that my fantasy of a totally neurological collaboration was exactly that—fantasy—for the moment at least. But what was clear was that research in cognitive science could be a catalyst for artistic research and development.
What was immediately engaging in our dynamic conversations across fields of expertise was a mutual interest in the relationship between this connection of the brain and the body. What actually does happen in the brain when the body is moving? What exactly is proprioception, this sense of yourself? Could exploring the brains of dancers/choreographers bear insight into human movement that was scientifically meaningful, and could this research provoke new stimuli for choreography? Several intensive projects later, the answer is a complicated but resounding yes. From AtaXia, a piece about the disconnection between the brain and the body to engender physical dis-coordination, to Amu, a work inspired by building a new imagination for the heart through MRI scanning, to Eden|Eden, a work about the ethics of the body in this time of cloning and stem cell research, scientists have proved to be essential collaborators.
As a science-passionate artist, I often get asked the question about whether or not instinct plays a part in my creative endeavour or if logic and reason (apparently only attributable to scientific thinking) rules, and this always astounds me. As if I do not have body and brain that are connected, indistinguishable, with its own physical intelligence. As if dancers shouldn’t think and dance should not be thoughtful. As if it would be possible to create without my instincts and as if this audience member would come to my work without looking for meaning, sense, and the concrete. Human beings are meaning makers after all. I think the question has something to do with a propagated myth that creativity is a magic alchemy and the very nature of attempting to understand it, especially scientifically, will ultimately inhibit its fragile spell. A similar argument is often fashioned against cognitive scientists: if you think about thinking, it changes the nature of thinking itself.
But artists and scientists share the same potential to vision, to think differently, abstractly. For intention to release instinct, we are not confined by boundaries, we need them to push against, or as Stravinsky insightfully notes, “the more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self.” The “constraints” for my new work, ENTITY, have focussed our attention on an attempt to gain a deeper understanding of the cognitive tool-kit of dance making. It challenges the very nature of choreography itself while utilizing a commonplace framework from cognitive science. In their attempt to gain a richer understanding of the brain and its behavior, cognitive scientists, sometimes assisted by artificial intelligence (AI) researchers, often model aspects of it; in order to reproduce thinking, you have to intimately understand it. The ENTITY research project essentially does just that—it asks what happens in the brain when one choreographs a work and how do you BEGIN to model this intelligence in a computer?
This three-year research initiative with cognitive and other scientists from Cambridge, UC San Diego, and Sussex University aims to create a series of artificially intelligent, autonomous choreographic agents that can generate unique solutions to choreographic problems alongside my own choreographic practice. We are not talking about dancing robots here, but a series of computer agents (programs) that respond to certain stimuli in their environments with kinaesthetic thinking as their motor. The agents will not dance per se but will respond choreographically to the tasks that they are set and then learn from these experiences.
In order to get to this level of autonomy, we return to Darwin as we search for a methodology, an index that helps elucidate the choreographic process or certainly elements of it and at the same time is transferable to a context of artificial intelligence. We need to be able to understand the process of creating choreography from a cognitive perspective if we are to have any hope in creating autonomous choreographic agents that can do it. Although the progress is slow, it is none the less richly engaging.
In the meantime, I am immersed in the languages of AI, its particular syntax and grammar, its algorithms and evolutionary dynamics, its discourse and it is from here that the first phase of ENTITY for the stage has emerged. Throughout this research, I am constantly reminded of the power of numbers as mathematics returns time and time again as the translation mechanism of an abstract idea into something other, into something meaningful, strangely tangible. Although I shouldn’t be surprised, from da Vinci’s The Vitruvian Man, to the Divine Proportion or Golden Ratio, to Fibonacci sequences and Le Corbusier’s Le Modulor, there is so much maths in nature and beauty in science.
Wayne McGregor is renowned for his physically testing choreography and groundbreaking collaborations across dance, film, music, visual art, technology, and science. In 1992, he founded Wayne McGregor|Random Dance, the first resident company at Sadler’s Wells, London. McGregor is resident choreographer for The Royal Ballet and will create new work for New York City Ballet in 2010-11.