Dancing through the cosmos 

click to enlarge Thomas Warfield, center, rehearses with RIT students. - PHOTO PROVIDED.
  • Thomas Warfield, center, rehearses with RIT students.
Dance and astronomy don’t frequently overlap. Where dance connects with audiences in a world of abstract movement and artistry, astronomy wows with facts that prove the immensity of the universe. Though most may see vast differences between science and art, Thomas Warfield, director of dance at Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Institute of the Deaf, sees opportunities.

His fascination with astronomy began in the mid-1990s. While dancing with a company in Santa Cruz, California, Warfield participated in a project with the SETI Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to finding life outside of earth, and he became enchanted by quantum physics and how it could be integrated with dance.

“Both dance and science are about curiosity,” Warfield said. “Artists learn to trust their imagination. In science, you don’t necessarily trust your imagination because you’re proving things. But there is still creativity with it.”

Years later, when he came across visual simulations of black holes while teaching at RIT, Warfield again saw choreography within science. To fulfill the vision for a dance show, he turned to astrophysicist and fellow RIT professor Manuela Campanelli, who saw a wonderful opportunity in the idea.

“Scientists speak with the language of reason,” she said. “Sometimes, it’s hard to reach the public with reason. It’s much easier to reach the public with emotional intelligence. That’s what dance brings.”

click to enlarge PHOTO PROVIDED.
Campanelli and Warfield created the first edition of AstroDance, a performance that explained the basic astrophysics behind gravitational waves, in 2008. When gravitational waves were officially detected in 2016, they were spurred to start the creation process for AstroDance II.

The timing coincided with the planned opening of a new performing arts space on RIT’s campus — a glass-box theater located in the Student Hall for Education and Development. Taking advantage of the nontraditional aspects of the new space, Warfield collaborated with other departments across the university to incorporate projections, animations, and other advanced technology into the performance.

Whereas the first iteration of AstroDance explained scientific concepts quite literally, AstroDance II lived in an abstract space. The performance included six sections, each of which explored a different concept, including black holes, cosmic rays, and the evolution of matter. In addition to the technological aspects, aerial and circus arts were used to give the sense that the dancers were physically in outer space.

Katie Miller, a second-year student at RIT, was one of the dancers who took to the skies in AstoDance II. As part of NTID, the dance program is accessible to students who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, and the performance reflected this with projections of American Sign Language and choreography that included signing. Miller, who is hard-of-hearing, signed phrases about the universe and the heavens as she flew through the air.

Though she is a chemistry major, dance was Miller’s first love. She thought she would have to leave dance behind when she decided to pursue a career in chemistry, but was surprised to find a flourishing arts program at RIT. The school offers a dance minor and performing arts scholarships, making it especially appealing for students like Miller who have interests in both the arts and sciences.

“I chose to study science because I want to know why the world works the way it does,” she said. “By studying both science and dance, I’ve learned that a lot of it has to do with how our bodies work. Science can feel sterile and harsh, but there’s a lot of artistry in what we do in the lab or the classroom. It’s quite beautiful to see the connections.” rit.edu/performingarts/astrodance-ii-across-universe

Sydney Burrows is a freelance contributor to CITY. Feedback about this article can be directed to [email protected].
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