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Dance and Neuroscience, Together for a Night

[ 1 ] February 19, 2010 | Noah Hutton
Choreographer Mark Morris (left) and neuroscientist Bevil Conway in conversation at the first Brainwave event at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City. (Photo: Michael J. Palma)

Choreographer Mark Morris (left) and neuroscientist Bevil Conway in conversation at the first Brainwave event at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City on Wednesday evening. (Photo: Michael J. Palma)

For those interested in the dialogue between the arts and the sciences, the hottest tickets in town (New York, that is) are surely for the two-month Brainwave series at the Rubin Museum of Art, which saw its premiere this week with an evening that brought together Wellesley neuroscientist Bevil Conway and esteemed dance choreographer Mark Morris for a ninety-minute discussion. This is the third year of Brainwave, and while the unscripted, brain-themed discussion format remains constant, this iteration of the series will also include talks that explore the universe, time, and how our brain wraps itself around the notion of infinity.

“The premise is always two people coming together from different disciplines who need to find a common language to explain themselves to each other,” said series producer Tim McHenry. “Rarely is it the case that the presenters know each other or have spoken before. Usually they’re meeting for the first time onstage, so forging that common language means they’ll hopefully leave the room knowing something more about each other’s side of looking at things.”

Highlights of the series include Phillip Glass and astronomer Greg Laughlin discussing the music of the spheres; Charlie Kaufman and physicist Brian Greene on the nature of time; neurophilosopher Owen Flanagan and author Stephen Batchelor on “What Makes the Mindset of a Radical?”; and neuroscientist Joe LeDoux and guitarist Lenny Kaye on fear and stress in the brain, among many more. After each discussion, the audience is given roughly thirty minutes for questions. (you can download a PDF of the program brochure here).

Some of the events have already sold out—Wednesday night’s premiere did so in advance, packing the auditorium at the Rubin for Bevil Conway and Mark Morris’ discussion of the brain and the creative process. When it comes to an improvised discussion such as this one, the best result comes from a mutual curiosity—a two-way street where artist and scientist seek to deepen their understanding of the world by both providing their own experience-based insights and questioning the other where their understanding reaches its limit. In this manner, Morris described the process of his choreography and his tastes in dance, and Conway questioned him as to the potential of nonverbal communication in the arts, providing some lucid explanations along the way of the scientific concepts at hand in thinking about creating and observing the art of human movement.

“I think one might imagine, from an evolutionary context, that we’ve evolved an ability to communicate nonverbally—that is part of what dance is playing on,” Conway observed. “This has its power because we’re capable of empathizing with the other, which relates to a recent discovery of mirror neurons, the system of neurons inside your cerebral cortex that is activated when you watch someone else do something.”

“I’ve been trying to essentialize my work and get rid of steps,” Morris explained.

Conway then provided a fascinating explanation of how the nervous system has evolved to essentialize function—with two neurons coding a piece of information by their scaled responses to each other along a continuum instead of dozens of neurons that individually represent each point on that continuum. This was cellular neuroscience and dance practice in beautiful harmony.

As we found out, Conway, who is a visual artist himself, had visited Morris’ dance company earlier that day to observe a rehearsal in process—and his observations at that rehearsal led to several poignant questions during the ninety-minute discussion, the most interesting of which had to do with the rewards of dance, or of any artform:

“I always thought that it was the moment when the audience recognized your genius that was the reward. But I spend a lot of time dancing to music by myself in my bedroom, and I think—that’s really satisfying. And I wonder, from your point of view, having experienced choreographing a performance to being a dancer in someone else’s company, where is the reward and how has the reward shifted over time?” Conway asked.

“That’s the best question in the world, Bevil,” answered Morris. He paused for a moment, then continued: “There’s something that satisfies you in participating in the culture of society, and in moving other people.”

Conway and Morris reached several of these stirring moments in their discussion, but at times Morris’ anecdotes veered into the domain of an artist’s talk and less of a true dialogue with the deep well of scientific knowledge that Conway clearly possesses. Conway remained the inquisitive one, probing Morris about his creative process and offering the supporting neuroscientific concept here and there—but what seemed to be missing in the dialogue at times was much curiosity from Morris’ end about the science at play. Rarely did he turn to Conway and seek to understand something about the brain in the way Conway sought to understand the creative process of choreography. Yet the interaction of neuroscientist and choreographer provided plenty of brilliant insights that one wouldn’t receive at an artist’s talk, pushing Morris towards a discussion of the deep-seated, rudimentary elements of his own artistic practice.

At the reception following the talk, Conway told me that he’s working on a new book about the neuroscience of visual art, focusing on the creative act itself, rather than the traditional approach to this topic which deals more with the end-product of how we perceive a finished painting. He is interested in the process of self-feedback during the creative act—of making a mark on a canvas, looking at it, shaping an image with deliberation and self-criticism—and what’s going on in our brains at each step of the process. From that perspective, this first Brainwave event was a rare glimpse into the creative process of a brilliant choreographer, threaded with teachings from neuroscience that can help all of us deepen our understanding of art.

Tim McHenry is hopeful that this series will do just that: “You want people to leave with a different perspective, or at least have the door open to them that different vantage points exist, and that they may want to think about these issues differently—and particularly think about themselves differently.”

When it comes to something so subjective as creativity and the perception of the created object (or movement), providing a stage for a choreographer and a neuroscientist curious about each other’s knowledge of the way things are in our brains and in the way our brains create things that move others may be one of our best tickets to moving the dialogue between the arts and sciences onward.

Upcoming Brainwave events:

  • Saturday, February 20, 4:30 pm: The Cosmos: What Do We Really Know?
    Curator Martin Brauen + astrophysicist Steven Soter
    The co-curators of Visions of the Cosmos discuss the meaning of the exhibition.
  • Sunday, February 21, 6:00 pm: How Do We Listen to the Music of the Spheres?
    Composer Philip Glass + astronomer Greg Laughlin
    The astronomer, who has developed software to map planetary systems as audible waveforms, meets with the renowned composer of Kepler and Galileo Galilei to interpret the sound of the musica universalis.
  • Wednesday, February 24, 7:00 pm: Is Feng Shui All in the Mind?
    Feng Shui expert Steven Post + neurosociologist John Zeisel
    The author of The Modern Book of Feng Shui engages with the noted member of the Academy for Neuroscience in Architecture on how we perceive spatial relationships.
  • See the full list of events for more, and stay tuned to this site for ongoing coverage of the series.

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