The gap between science and the humanities, as identified in C P Snow’s celebrated lecture The Two Cultures, has in recent years been conscientiously bridged: Ian McEwan writes a novel about global warming, while Brian Cox popularises physics for the layman. Somewhat surprisingly, however, it is in the field of contemporary dance that science has become seriously voguish. Last year, Wayne McGregor’s FAR fashioned movement out of ideas from the Age of Enlightenment, while in 2009 David Bintley’s E=mc² took on the theory of relativity. Not exactly Romeo and Juliet.
Indeed, the marriage between science and dance would seem about as likely as that between Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe. But opposites attract, as the physicists know, and it is perhaps not so odd that scientific thought should intrigue the contemporary choreographer.
It is all too easy for modern dance to become amorphous, to float too freely in a post-classical ballet world. The rigour of science stiffens the artistic sinews. Its very difficulty gives point to the work, something to wrestle with beyond the physical.
One of the first choreographers to recognise this was Mark Baldwin, who, in 2002, began his extraordinarily successful tenure as artistic director of the Rambert Dance Company, with whom he previously worked as a dancer. In 2005, he created Constant Speed, commissioned by the Institute of Physics as a celebration of Einstein (a popular subject, clearly; but then the basic elements of energy, space and time are peculiarly appropriate to choreography). In 2009, Rambert was invited to become involved in the events marking the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth. Comedy of Change, which evoked animal behaviour on stage with entrancing accuracy, was both a dance triumph and a witty fulfilment of Rambert’s remit to educate and engage a younger audience.
Integral to the development of the piece was Nicky Clayton, a professor at the Department of Experimental Psychology at Cambridge University.
With her long, blonde hair and fairy-like physique, Clayton looks more like a ballerina than a don, and the fact that she takes regular dance classes gives her an essential understanding of how movement works. She is also, however, a zoologist-cum-psychologist whose specialist research is in “corvid cognition” – the remarkable intelligence with which birds of the crow family think and act – and this scientific knowledge was fruitfully applied by Baldwin to Comedy of Change.
Now the pair are collaborating on Seven for a Secret…, the aim of which is to reproduce the behavioural patterns of children in dance. (The title, evoking the familiar nursery rhyme about magpies, also alludes to the fact that corvids have a similar brain capacity to very young humans.)
In a way, this new project sounds simple. The loose-limbed rough-and-tumble of childish movement is not exactly alien to contemporary dancers. However, the challenge of truly inhabiting a child’s psyche is more subtle than one might imagine. As Clayton says: “Children don’t remember the way we do, and they don’t understand consequences. Everything is in the moment.”
And that, even for dancers as gifted as the Rambert troupe, is remarkably hard to achieve; not least because, as Baldwin says, “I don’t want them to think too much about it.” This sounds paradoxical, given the presence of Prof Clayton. But Clayton’s challenge, too, is not to be overly cerebral; instead, she must distil ideas into a bold, concrete form that will actually mean something in terms of movement.
Baldwin, who took a degree before joining Royal New Zealand Ballet (he is Fijian by birth), relishes the underpinning of dance with science. He loves the brainstorming that goes on between him and Clayton, with whom he shares an infectious and merry chemistry. “I like it because I feel that I’ve investigated things more thoroughly. Also, choreography is quite a lonely thing. It feels good to go back and forth between my ideas and what is coming out of her gob!”
There is a third element to this new work, a commissioned score from Stephen McNeff, adapted from Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges. “It has all the fleetness and other-worldliness that I wanted. The dancers can hop, skip, shunt, as well as using ballet steps such as the pas de cheval, which really is like a child playing at being horse.
Baldwin describes Seven for a Secret… with terrific charm, conveying the impression of an irresistibly vital piece of theatre. Becoming children, he says, “exhausts the dancers. You can’t believe how tiring it is! Children are bang-bang-bang-bang… then flop. Like puppies.”
The ambition of this new piece lies in its naked simplicity. With an art form that can tend towards pretension and obscurity, there is a risk in doing something so pure, so playful. But Rambert has always, throughout its 85-year history, been a daring company. Its creator, ex-Diaghilev dancer Marie Rambert, was an innovator, an evangelist for new choreography (members of her troupe included Frederick Ashton and Antony Tudor). In the Sixties, the company made its decisive move into the contemporary sphere; in the Baldwin era, it has become a pre-eminent artistic force, nurturing the growing popularity of dance.
No doubt Seven for a Secret… will play its part in enhancing the company’s reputation. What does Baldwin want audiences to take from it? “It’s not about giving a lesson in psychology. It’s about the awe and delight and fun of being a child.” To which Clayton adds: “And the creativity of being a child.”