Liz Lerman: The Matter of Origins (2010)
MacArthur ‘genius’ fellow Liz Lerman, a Baltimore-based choreographer, spent three years developing a multimedia, poetic dance about physics, dark matter, and the beginnings of the universe. The Matter of Origins is a piece fusing art, science, and philosophy in two acts. It is the result of Lerman’s collaboration with many scientists including physicists (and close friends) Gordon Kane and Andrew Baden. Physics attempts to answer big questions: What holds the universe together? Is there a unified theory of everything? Where do we come from? Lerman wanted to manifest the science in a dance, allowing audiences to grasp ideas such as measurement, particle interaction, and cosmology.
Act One of The Matter of Origins is partly inspired by CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. In 2007 and 2008, Lerman and a small group of Dance Exchange performers visited CERN’s Large Hadron Collider on the French-Swiss border near Geneva. She spent several weeks during both visits talking to scientists about the Big Bang Theory, exploring the expansive tunnels and spaces, and dancing to the beat of invisible particles. (Take a look at this video.) Lerman said in an interview about the research experience:
…what was really fun at CERN was that the minute Ben Wegman, the dancer, was down in the ATLAS cavern and he was dancing, just spinning, work stopped. People started flashing their camera phones and we understood later that there had been an electric current through the whole place. Word spread that there was a dancer down in the cavern. I think people got really excited. And of course they laughed and hooted and all that, but we’re used to that.
The stage performance is accompanied by music, text, and excerpts from interviews along with images from CERN and the Hubble Space Telescope… in addition to videos and dance reenactments of atomic explosions. This brings us to Act Two. Lerman received support National Science Foundation to conduct a provocative tea-party following Act One. Her idea was to invite viewers on stage for a group conversation, serving tea and cake just as Edith Warner (the legendary woman who owned a teahouse in Los Alamos) would do while entertaining scientists during the Manhattan Project. Lerman writes on her website:
She served suppers and poured tea for the engineers and physicists who had come to the mesa to split the atom. But what do you say to someone with a huge, explosive secret? What subjects come to mind after a day spent probing the essence of matter and contemplating an unspeakable act? What do you listen for in a room like that?
Here’s where Warner’s cake comes in. Lerman used her recipe and served the same delicious, chocolate cake to get people comfortable with talking about ideas of our origins. Artists and scientists (iPads too) were staged at tables throughout the room as “provocateurs” of conversation. An evaluation took place afterwards. Some people responded enthusiastically and others, like New York Times reporter Claudia La Rocco who wrote a review, found it awkward.
Performances of The Matter of Origins have been presented by Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland, Peak Performances at Montclair State University, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in partnership with the Chicago Humanities Festival. It’s the second science-themed piece on Lerman’s CV — the first being Ferocious Beauty: Genome, which premiered in 2006. She’s a powerful woman, and an outspoken advocate of art-science overlaps and arts-based learning, believing that both disciplines play a crucial role in meaning-making.
Credit: Video courtesy of Liz Lerman/Dance Exchange.