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Evolution of a Dance
by Jennifer Boeth Donovan
Bonnie Bassler (left) and Liz Lerman collaborated to bring genetic science to the fore in an unusual way—on stage
At center stage, Martha Wittman—a dancer in her 70s— contemplates a partially peeled apple that she holds in her hand. Noting the resemblance of the peel to the spiral shape of DNA, she reflects on the many varieties of apples, how different they look and taste, and the many wonderful ways her mother used to prepare them.
A younger dancer bursts onto the stage in a wheelchair. Born with osteogenesis—an inherited disorder that causes bones to break easily—she dances defiantly on wheels, and then on crutches, whirling among Wittman and other more able-bodied members of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange. The fury of the scene recedes, and Wittman wanders off the stage, admiring her apple and shaking her head at the thought of genetic manipulations that might render all apples uniformly red and tasteless. "No more tart surprises," she sighs.
In Ferocious Beauty: Genome, choreographer Liz Lerman and HHMI investigator and fellow MacArthur Award recipient Bonnie Bassler, have joined hands with artists, scientists, and ethicists across the country to tell the story of the human genome. A visual and auditory tapestry of dance, music, speech, costume, light, and video, the uncommon production premiered in February 2006 at Wesleyan University, in collaboration with HHMI's undergraduate science education program there.
Three years in the making, the project was sparked in 2003 when Pamela Tatge, director of Wesleyan's Center for the Arts, saw Lerman's intergenerational modern dancers perform. Afterward, she heard the choreographer speak of her desire to develop a dance about genetic research and its implications for humanity. So Tatge arranged for Lerman to meet the then-dean of natural sciences and math at Wesleyan, Laura Grabel, who had been a professional dancer herself. Though Grabel had kept her dance and science separate for 30 years, noting, "There's not much call for a dancing biologist," she found Lerman's idea provocative.
After that meeting, Wesleyan invited the Dance Exchange, based in Takoma Park, Maryland, to establish a residency program at the university, using the Connecticut campus as home base for the genome dance project. Lerman immersed herself in the history of genetics and consulted with biologists at Wesleyan and elsewhere. She also learned from the students. An HHMI science education program at Wesleyan sponsored a student symposium where dancers and undergraduate scientists compared how they approach problems and do their work.
Bassler, a Princeton University researcher who studies how bacteria "talk" to one another, became an advisor to the project, initially spending a day with the performers to explain her research and watch them experiment with ways to express it in movement.
Photo: Shawn Henry