Miércoles 22 de Febrero de 2006, Ip nº 141

Improv marries dance and science
Por Janice Steinberg

Dancers moving with electrodes pasted to their skulls? That's the image that might come up, when you hear that neuroscientists are curious about dance improvisation.

The Emergent Improvisation Project, however, doesn't involve poking dancers like experimental subjects. It's an exchange of ideas between choreographer Susan Sgorbati and scientists at the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla.

Sgorbati, a professor at Vermont's Bennington College, began talking with neuroscientists five years ago, after discovering the ideas of Dr. Gerald M. Edelman, the Nobel Laureate who founded the Neurosciences Institute. From dialogues with Edelman and other NSI scientists – and 20 years of studying improvisation – she's developed improvisation “forms” that she uses in the studio.

Sgorbati is fascinated, for instance, by similarities between improvisers and flocks of birds. “There's no lead bird who dictates, 'Now we'll be in this V,' ” said the choreographer, in San Diego last week for a residency at the Institute that culminated in two performances over the weekend.

“They're forming patterns by sensing where they all are in space, by wind currents, all the different variables. They're self-organizing themselves into a pattern.

“That's what the dancers are experiencing, they're forming their own patterns from within.”

Last weekend marked the first time she'd shown this work in performance, and it was a risk.

Improvisation, while delicious to experience as a participant, may put a viewer to sleep. It requires great refinement of the tools used to generate the movements. And the dancers must be expert at tuning into subtle signals from each other – like migrating birds able to turn at the same instant.

Sgorbati's ensemble of seven dancers and three musicians showed that kind of refinement Friday, in dancing notable for its clarity and intelligence and in complex dialogues between dance and the mostly percussive music.

The dancers clustered and broke apart in “Complex Unison Form.” To a meditative gong, the dance felt delicate, exploratory, as occasional unison gestures – a raised arm – emerged.

With a sudden thrill, it arrived somewhere. Two dancers, half-crouching, wiggled their fingers, as a group of three, side by side, crooked their arms as if cradling some precious object, and another two entwined. The tableau conveyed the drama of a sophisticated choreography.

That shift to greater complexity is the kind of phenomenon that intrigues Sgorbati and the researchers.

NSI theoretical neurobiologist Anil Seth sees Sgorbati's work as a metaphor for brain activity. “I'm very interested in how relatively simple elements such as neurons in the brain coordinate their activity to generate global patterns,” Seth said.

“There's nobody telling each individual neuron what to do, they just do it. This is akin to improvisational choreography. What Susan is doing is seeing how global patterns on the dance floor emerge from interactions among dancers.”

Three dancer-musician duets featured the highly individual styles Sgorbati nurtures in solo improvisation. Movement bubbled through Katie Martin's eloquent body like a lava lamp, as Jake Meginsky produced gurgling percussion as if from inside a cave.

Keith Thompson threw his body with off-balance abandon. His trembling fingers echoed Sean Mattio's dry-rattle shakers. Sgorbati, in a duet with musician John Truscinki, did a brief, elegant exploration of the Institute stage, circled by a warm, intimate spotlight.

“Dr. Edelman calls memory 'the remembered present,' ” said Sgorbati. “Memory is not a fixed thing you just recall, but it's an open-ended process of reconstruction of past into present.”

For the “Memory Form,” lighting designer Michael Gianniti created a hypnotic grid of nine rectangles of light. The dancers moved only when inside the grid, doing a brief sequence they'd made a few days earlier. Each had a particular way of entering the grid – such as doing an ungainly cartwheel or guiding another dancer.

They did the initial sequence twice, then messed with it in several subsequent run-throughs. A different person did the cartwheel. The previously guided dancer entered alone. They added new moves. Enough of the original remained, one could almost visualize synapses firing in the dancers' brains as they adjusted to the changes – and notice one's own impulse to fill in missing parts: shouldn't someone be breaking through the two dancers facing each other now?

If anyone ever decides to study this phenomenon with electrodes, they'd better bring some for the audience, too, in this dance that offered an uncommon, exciting level of engagement.

  07/02/2006. San Diego.com.