Glancing at the Stars

By Kate Law Hoflich

October 1, 2009, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

On October 2nd Humanities West opens its 25th Anniversary Season with “Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler: Redefining our Place in the Universe,” a two-day program of lectures, discussions, and the premiere of Kathryn Roszak’s “The Star Dances.” This event is a celebration of the International Year of Astronomy—honoring the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first use of the telescope in 1609.

“The Star Dances” is the result of a collaboration between Roszak and Dr. Bethany Cobb, a National Science Foundation/UC Berkeley post-doctorate fellow. The dances take inspiration from the latest star-mapping by astronomers from UC Berkeley and from new research on colliding galaxies. Roszak and Cobb will also give a pre-program lecture on Thursday, September 24, at the Mechanic’s Institute. This is the start of an ongoing investigation that will eventually grow. By December when the piece is presented again at Lawrence Hall in Berkeley it will become more interwoven with text and multi-media images.

The goal of presenting a work of dance as the only artistic expression in the midst of a two-day scientific forum is to illustrate the physics of astronomy in a format that an audience will relate to. Roszak sees “Star Dances” as a perfect fit for this arrangement. “The dance provides a visual, poetic interpretation of scientific concepts,” she said. “Space is vast and concepts can be abstract and mind-bending. Having the dancers as the cosmic elements humanizes the science. I feel through performance it is possible to more directly access cosmological mythology. Through movement we can show harmony, violence, and the ordering of the universe.”

Cobb, whose role at Berkeley is, in part, to communicate astronomy to ordinary non-scientist type people, believes that dance will pique people’s intellectual interest in science. She hopes through this program and others like it she can bring astronomy back into people’s daily lives. Astronomy, star-gazing, and the mythology that surrounds it used to be an enormously important aspect of people lives. Today, we can’t even see the stars at night unless we are camping and the most attention people pay to astronomy is when they read their horoscope in tabloid magazines. Roszak mused on this topic noting that “we are all going around in our cars, living our daily lives, and the entire cosmos is happening all around us and we don’t even notice. There are massive collisions in space that happen all the time and we don’t have a clue.” Hopefully “Star Dances” will get audiences to think more deeply about the cosmos.

The project came into being because Roszak was in discussion with Humanities West about creating a work set to the Music of the Spheres, one of “Star Dances” accompaniments. She wanted to learn more about astronomy so she looked into classes, saw that Dr. Cobb’s mission is to make astronomy accessible and signed up for Cobb’s continuing education class. After class she talked to Cobb about her choreography and since then Dr. Cobb has been interested in the entire process. She has been a part of the process by writing letters in support of the project, giving ideas for costuming, attending rehearsals, and giving feedback on the dancers’ animation of the ideas of scientists.

Rozak has since also brought Dr. Carl Pennypacker into her collaborative process. Pennypacker is a UC Berkeley physicist and educator who is also contributing feedback as well as musical composition to the work. In her research process she has also consulted Dr. Nao Suzuki, who together with

Pennypacker, works on dark energy. In addition to local observatories, she has also visited Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles and the Huntington Library in Pasadena.

Roszak is tremendously pleased to be collaborating with these scientists. She has had a long interest in combining dance and science. In the past she has explored the stars and the northern lights as well as geometric patterns and mathematics. One of the concepts that she finds most inspiring is the fact that our bodies are made of the same particles as the stars, so having the dancers perform is a visceral way to embody that.

I asked Roszak about her process of generating movement based on technological star maps. She explained that “in the current choreography, Kepler’s ‘Music of the Spheres’ is at the core. Images of elliptical orbits and colliding galaxies provide images for the development of movement material. Some of this is created through structured improvisation with the dancers.” She has also incorporated some of Cobb’s scientific “demos” and the movement found in them into choreography.

Star Dances is also set to a piano duet version of Gustav Holst’s The Planets. As the music is more familiar in orchestral versions that bring to mind the vastness of the Star Wars soundtrack, she opted for something less familiar with few popular connotations. This very dynamic piano music is combined with music by Eric Satie which is more lyrical and has beautiful harmony.

The piece is set on four dancers who are working with orbits and elipses. The movement is conscious of special patterns and how one dancer’s movement affects another because they represent heavenly bodies with gravitational pulls. Ancient ideas of astronomy and mythology are being examined as well, especially the three muses (represented by the three female dancers) who are part of the divine order of the universe.

I asked Roszak if she felt at all intimidated to present her take on the movement of the stars to a roomful of astrophysicists. She responded that she was not. “Some of the people who I am working seem to be aesthetically interested in their scientific work and want to engage with it more,” she said. “I feel excited about this cross disciplinary conversation. I have my perspective on things and they have theirs. I am coming from the studio and they are coming from the lab.”

If you want to see Roszak’s take on the stars while also learning a great deal from the other presentations check out “Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler: Redefining our Place in the Universe,” on Friday, October 2 at 8pm at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco.

This article appeared in the October 2009 issue of In Dance.

Kate Law Hoflich is a dance artist, aerialist, and co-director of Bow & Sparrow. She loves writing about and being involved in the dance community.,