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Ferocious Beauty: Genome expresses the power, momentum, shape, and beauty of biology, as well as the sense of simultaneous connection—and separation—inherent in our genetics.
What if scientists were choreographers? Eight dancers glide and slide in and out of molecule-like formations—first intertwined, then breaking apart. On an enormous video screen behind them, Eric Jakobsson, director of the Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, ponders the question. "You could start by laying dancers out head to foot, end to end, head to foot...."
Harris Lewin, a professor of immunogenetics at the University of Illinois, replaces Jakobsson, superimposed on the whirling dancers and supersized on the screen. "It's the genome shuffle," he suggests. "We're all very similar. The chromosomes are basically the same. We just reshuffle the pieces of our ancestors' genomes."
Bassler marks that day as one of the most fascinating of her life. "What they do is so different from what I do," she says, "and yet in some ways, it's so similar. Cells communicate with a chemical language, I communicate with spoken language, and dancers communicate with movement."
Lerman, whose "nonfiction dances" often have political and ethical themes, also consulted ethicists in creating Ferocious Beauty: Genome. The performance's first act deals with the rigor and wonder of scientific discovery, focusing on Gregor Mendel, the 19th-century monk renowned for his genetic experiments with peas. The shorter second act presents issues raised by genetic science, such as aging, the search for perfection, and our common ancestry.
Thomas Dwyer, silver-haired and gaunt, perches on a folding chair, hemmed in by brick walls that look a lot like microarrays. The soundtrack is a heartbeat. "New laws for old folks" flash across his walls: "Age 70—cease and desist wearing seat belts; Age 75—mandatory skydiving; Age 80—cross traffic on red light; Age 85—mandatory smoking... ." Perturbed, depressed, frustrated, and finally angered by what he's losing and what he's lost, he circles his chair and explores the walls as scenes from his life flash across them.
Yet Lerman didn't want her production to become a soapbox. "It poses some small and large questions, but it doesn't attempt to answer them," she insists. "I just want people to leave saying, 'Oh, I can understand this. Big things are coming, and I can play a part in them.'"
Lerman and her dancers are taking Ferocious Beauty: Genome to stages at universities and performance centers across the country. Each audience will see a slightly different show. "Like biology, it will keep evolving," Lerman promises. "I'm still trying to understand the piece myself."
Photos: Kevin Kennefick