The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2011

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MAY 2011 Issue

Of Cosmos, Cake, and Crossing Disciplines

On the train ride back, Carrie tells me that her friend told her that astrologically, March this year is a very charged month. A particular celestial body (she doesn’t know which) is completing its orbit for the first time in a long time (she can’t say how long). 

Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in The Matter of Origins.. Photo by George Hagegeorge. Sarah on chair.
Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in The Matter of Origins.. Photo by George Hagegeorge. Sarah on chair.

When I get home, Jocelyn asks me if I’ve seen the YouTube video of the UFO over Jerusalem. It’s gone viral, she says, adding matter-of-factly, “What it is, is a ball of energy.” An expert in such matters, she disappears into her bedroom to “stir up some potions” for her weekend getaway with her boyfriend. With the right offerings, they believe, the universe will act in their favor; they strew coins on the kitchen floor for prosperity, rose petals in the bathtub for love.

Sometimes, art illuminates life. Tonight, life keeps delivering little mockeries of art. Not that Liz Lerman’s The Matter of Origins was about vague astrological theories or new-agey rituals, but in its treatment of galactic themes (as in big and, literally, of the galaxy), the part-performance, part-dialogue, part-tea party, part-group hug often felt as eager to amaze and as hard to believe in.

“So, what percentage scientist would you say you are?”

Silence (the weight of which, as we learned in Part 1, cannot be measured). Timid glances all around. You go. No, you. No, you. Are the other tables having this problem?

I have the perfect answer: I’ll radically blur boundaries—because that’s what this night is about, right?—by explaining that even though I like to write and dance, I also like science, I actually almost majored in biology, so I’d say around 80, on some days even 90 percentscientist. But first, let me finish this bite of cake.

“Seventy? Maybe 75?” ventures the woman across from me, interrupting my internal monologue.

Before we have time to analyze, another dance breaks out, pulling us away from the conversation and back into that no-less-uncomfortable place between lec-dem, historical reenactment, and cabaret.

Things to make sure the audience takes away:

( a ) Epiphany that dance can enrich our understanding of science—and vice versa! ( b ) Sense of community. Warm, fuzzy, yet provocative exchange of ideas.
( c ) Interactive touch-screen experience.
( d ) Epiphany that dancers are real people. Will facilitate by seating audience onstage in second act, providing up-close view and “woosh of air” sensation during final climactic running sequence.
( e ) Epiphany that scientists are real people, who also can dance. Will invite real-life physicist to talk/dance throughout tea party proceedings.
( f ) Full sensorial experience, taste included.
( g ) Release of painful memories from high-school chemistry class.
( h ) Release of biases about inaccessibility of modern dance. They will “get it!”

The artists feel deeply about their subject matter. They have spent a long, long time with it, earnestly investigating. They know for sure that they’re onto something. They have been to Switzerland. They have stood, humbled, before the colossal machines that are attempting to replicate the molecular conditions of the universe at the moment of its inception. They have contemplated the Big Bang; dark matter; the accelerating expansion of the universe; the invention of the atom bomb; gravity; Genesis; the history of nuclear testing worldwide. They’re trying to take us there, trying hard—visually, verbally, aurally, choreographically. Running dancer, are you meant to represent a proton? And your fellow dancers the subatomic particles with which you collided at the dawn of time? Convoluted equations float by on a massive screen. E = MC2 (we knew it was coming) fades off into the distance. Feature-film music surges—glossy, orchestral. Sentiment swells. A blinding flash.

There are some heavy ideas on the table, amid the cake crumbs.  It’s hard to do their grandeur justice. Maybe such lofty themes are best expressed through more modest means.

In Edith, we have an attempt to bring foreboding topics down to human scale. That’s Edith Warner, who (quite eerily, really) served tea and chocolate cake to Oppenheimer and his colleagues when they needed a break from engineering the atom bomb. (She didn’t know what they were working on.) As we nibble on the confection, her very own 1940s recipe, we could be right there in her Los Alamos parlor. Well, not really. But we can ask our hostess questions, and with her warm, attentive demeanor, she certainly enlivens the conversation. I just wish she’d had a firmer grasp of her character:

 “Edith! Yes, over here. We have a question for you.”


“How did she—no, you—how did you feel when you found out what had been going on at Los Alamos?”

“I think she felt—or rather, I felt that Edith would have thought—or, sorry, what I thought was…”

At another point, she comes by toting the resident physicist on her arm. He is also taking questions. I can only wonder whether he feels like some sort of exhibit, on display.

The feeling of an answer—so close to certain—eluding you: It’s one of those things that the body can say better than words. (See how trite it just sounded in words?) A small, wiry woman stands on a chair; other dancers find various ways to slip it out from beneath her. Just when you think she’s stable, there goes her foundation. It’s calm, precise, quietly suspenseful. For a moment, the work of a physicist seems truly to reveal itself through dance.

I ask whether the dancers at the table ever have existential qualms about the broader “relevance” of their field. I don’t know why I bring it up; I guess to fill that immeasurable silence. Our discussion leader—a friendly guy, bio professor, who turns out to be more therapist than “provocateur”—suggests that people in every field experience those doubts. “Whatever you do, you’ve got to have confidence. Because someone is always gonna try to cut you down.” How did we get here?

If I were to neatly tie everything together, I would quote a few poignant lines of text from the show:

“This body is influenced by forces and will accelerate.
This body spins, entangles, and will decay.
This body’s burdens will become light.”
“Measure the fork in the road.
Measure how much I miss my mother.
Measure the creases in her face as she tries to figure out the microwave.
Measure the weight of this silence, starting now.”

I would exaggerate and describe how, walking across the quiet Montclair State University campus, I recall those words and feel my body emptying out, merging with the cosmos up above New Jersey, in some indefinable way.

Maybe it won’t all sink in for a while; at the very least, I know more now than I did before. But in this moment, only the mundane measurables are on my mind: minutes until train’s arrival, number of hours until sleep. 


Siobhan Burke

SIOBHAN BURKE is a writer and dancer based in Brooklyn. She contributes regularly to the New York Times and Dance Magazine.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2011

All Issues