Review and Articles
by Laura Paull
Literary Review & Calendar for the West - June 2013
by Sandra M. Gilbert
In "Secrets on the Way," Kathryn Roszak's accomplished and spirited Danse Lumière has suavely and powerfully formulated interpretations of poems by the great Tomas Transtsrömer that beautifully capture the writer's lyric austerity, his severe vision. With a single poetry reader, the actor Earll Kingston, who moves like a dancer and reads like a dancer too, with solemnity and grace, and with Swedish language voice overs, as well as precisely suited sound tracks, she redacts "Journey", Tranströmer's melancholy vision of a subway, its deaths and denials. This is followed in "The Couple" by a more romantic (though guardedly ironic) view of a sleeping couple whose "most secret thoughts begin to meet / like two colors that meet and run together... in a schoolboy's painting" - though they are walled in by houses packed with blank-faced people.
Liberation from urban constraints begins to gleam in "Five stanzas to Thoreau,", where Roszak's animated dancers (I almost want to say they are Tranströmer's, so true are they to his spirit) escape the city and seek to "vanish deep into your own greenwood, / crafty and hopeful." The beautifully cadenced concluding excerpt from "Schubertiana," traces the perils of life as the dancers brilliantly tight-rope-walk across the stage and learn to trust "the blind bannister rail that finds its / way in the dark."
"Secrets on the Way" concludes in joy, as speaker, dancer, choreographer and music together celebrate "All the rolling wheels that contradict death!" Here Earll Kingston, the reader/dancer seems to muse, almost ministerial, on Tranströmer's wide horizons, his never-ending roads, as he repeats that last line again and again. And the dancers, their lithe bodies now stripped to black leotards, affirm the truth he speaks.
We have much to thank Kathryn Roszak for here. She has offered us a strong rendering in dance of a great poet's passionate interpretations of the world. Let's hope we can see this piece again and again, not just in Berkeley but in many other venues.
SANDRA M. GILBERT is a poet, literary critic, and Professor Emerita
of English at the University of California, Davis
by Lou Fancher - Correspondent
BERKELEY -- Kathryn Roszak is an artist whose work defies the boundaries of a single genre.
When the choreographer and Danse Lumière Artistic Director presents "Secrets on the Way" at Berkeley's Osher Studio on April 27 and 28, a transatlantic fusion of dance, visual art, theater and the Nobel Prize-winning poetry of Sweden's Tomas Tranströmer will occur.
Like most collisions, sparks will fly, bodies will be tossed, damage -- the sort that bends imagination and torques preconceived notions into transportive beauty -- is likely to release a flurry of audience chatter after the applause has ended.
Which is exactly what the former San Francisco Opera Ballet dancer intends.
MOSTLY BOOKS - January 10, 2009
Books of Peace
a review by Sharon Coleman
Even if the troops were called back from the occupation of Iraq tomorrow, it would take a lifetime to insure no soldier, man or woman, is left behind. The psychological toll on soldiers changes with each war as new technologies and strategies render unexpected results, another version of "friendly fire." With the Vietnam War, soldiers were trained into "killing machines" as never before, and their target became civilians, more and more. Add to that chemical warfare and guerilla tactics and drug addiction and demoralization and then a Veterans Health Administration unprepared and sometimes unwilling to treat our mental casualties. A few veterans turned to writing. A noted example is the writing group of Vietnam vets facilitated by East Bay writer Maxine Hong Kingston, and which she describes in her memoir, The Fifth Book of Peace. Their work is anthologized in Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, which she edited. As history repeats itself, their writings' value is self-evident.
This fall the poems and stories of this group escaped the bound pages of the book and transformed into a mixed- media performance of dance, theater, music, lighting, followed by discussion. Danse Lumière, directed by performer and choreographer Kathryn Roszak, is dedicated to mounting literary works into dance and theater productions. The Fifth Book of Peace is perhaps the company's most ambitious project, both in its current social context and in its multilayered, multifaceted production. It brings together a Bay Area panoply of artists and writers. LINES Ballet and Dominican University's program in dance provided talented young dancers able to well carry out the depth of acting demanded of the roles, which is rare in dancers so young. Ron van Leeuwaard, a composer originally from Suriname who has collaborated with a number of world music bands and theater companies, created a score based on electronic music, ambient sounds of helicopters, bullets and ocean waves, traditional Asian music, flute, percussion, and rifts of popular music of the time period. The script, adapted by Katherine Roszak, is based on the writings of Maxine Hong Kingston, on the stories of award-winning novelist James Janko and other participants of Kingston's Vietnam vet writing group, and on the written testimony of Pauline Laurent in Grief Denied, a Vietnam Widow's Story. Daniel Ellsberg, revealer of the "Pentagon Papers" and renowned nonfiction author, held a post-performance discussion at the November performance. And the list of those involved goes on.
On stage, The Fifth Book of Peace poetically narrates the journey "back home" of an "Old Vet." Played by actor Steve Ortiz, the Old Vet exists in a psychic no man's land and is guided to tell his story, to exorcise the memories, by the female and male incarnations of Kwan Yin, the Bodhisattva of compassion, whose twin aspects are played by Kathryn Roszak and martial artist Ben Tang. Tableaux of the Old Vet's flash backs are danced so that actors and dancers double the older and younger selves. Whether narrative, gesture, pure emotion, abstract movement or symbolic action, the dance with its poetic subtlety and range truly carries the performance. Add costumes silkscreened by Kaibrina Sky Buck that transform dancers into a forest or a ghost to the choreography (also by Roszak), and the visuals are enthralling. Perhaps the most captivating parts are when the ensemble dances the role of the jungle. They become an array of symmetrical and asymmetrical moves morphing from ballet to modern to animal-like steps, a place of unexpected lyrical motion and mortal danger.
The message and stories are clear: clear and, unfortunately, enduring.
Sharon Coleman is a poet who teaches at Berkeley City College. She is an editor of Poetry Flash.
The Fifth Book of Peace, a fusion of dance, theater, and music presented by Danse Lumière, conceived and choreographed by Kathryn Roszak: October 24-26, 2008, Dance Mission Theater, San Francisco, California, and November 6, 2008, Dominican University, San Rafael, California. These productions were co-sponsored by Poetry Flash, and were adapted from and inspired by The Fifth Book of Peace, a book by Maxine Hong Kingston.
SAN FRANCISCO ARTS MONTHLY
Danse Lumière: Reinventing Peace - October 2008
by Jean Schiffman
Do we really want to hear the stories of Vietnam War veterans? That question faced Danse Lumière founder/artistic director Kathryn Roszak several years ago when she first began developing an hour-long dance-theater adaptation of writer Maxine Hong Kingston's The Fifth Book of Peace.
The award-winning Kingston, senior lecturer in creative writing at U.C. Berkeley and local peace activist, is known for such books as her surreal 1976 memoir The Woman Warrior as well as China Men, Tripmaster Monkey and others. She wrote The Fifth Book of Peace, published in 2003, after her original manuscript-in-progress was destroyed during the Oakland hills fire of 1991. As she faced the loss of her work, not to mention her house and all her possessions, a friend told her, "If a woman is going to write a Book of Peace, it is given to her to know devastation." Kingston began her rewrite with that line. The result is a four-part book ("Fire", "Paper", "Water", "Earth") combining fiction and non-fiction. "Earth" - the section upon which Roszak bases her adaptation - is structured around the writing workshops Kingston held, starting in the 1990s, for disaffected Vietnam vets.
When Roszak read The Fifth Book of Peace, she was, as she says, quite taken by it. "This is the war I grew up with," she explains. "The whole issue of war and peace and what's happening with vets now comes to the forefront. We all have different ideas of peace, and what's interesting to me is how can we express this onstage."
This is not the first work by Kingston that has been staged; in 1994 Berkeley Repertory Theatre world-premiered an epic adaptation of The Woman Warrior. Kingston says, via email, that she agreed to Roszak's proposal for re-imagining The Fifth Book of Peace because "dance is a totally different form - not literary at all. I was curious to see how she would transform stories and feeling into movement and music." The cast of Roszak's small, 13-year-old company (formerly known as Anima Mundi) consists of 12 dancers from the LINES Ballet B.F.A. program plus five others: actors and wushu artists (a Chinese martial art). An onstage musician (Ron van Leeuwaarde) plays an original score, on electric guitar, that incorporates Vietnamese folk music and American music from the period, and costumer Cassandra Carpenter and textile artist Kaibrina Sky Buck complete the team.
Roszak, an actor and dancer who has choreographed for American Conservatory Theater and danced for the San Francisco Opera Ballet, among other accomplishments, considers this project “an opportunity to combine grit with beauty.” She liked the idea of the archetypal journey of the soldier, which harkens back to ancient times, as in the journey of Odysseus. In her book, Kingston explores the whole issue of what happens to soldiers when they go to war, and what happens to our culture and society when soldiers go to war for us. So too does Roszak explore those issues, through movement, character and text. It's dark material, she says, but “that's where the dance can be brought in to move us to other realms. Dance can be mythological, poetic as well as representing violence. Dance embodies so many different things; it's chameleon-like, very theatrical.”
To turn the Vietnam vet stories into dance-theater, Roszak crafted a script using several sources in addition to The Fifth Book of Peace, namely, some of her own writings, bits of The Woman Warrior and text from Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, an anthology edited by Kingston. Included in Roszak's script are dialogue, monologues, letters between home and battlefield, voice-overs. Vietnam vets attended early rehearsals, and Roszak further prepared by going to one of Kingston's all-day writing workshops for vets.
The story follows a soldier's journey of going to war, homecoming and efforts to reintegrate into family and society. Other characters include his sister, his wife, a young radical woman and the ghost of a Vietcong girl he killed. The soldier himself is portrayed by both a dancer and an actor (as a younger and older man respectively), as is the character of a war widow. “The goal is a bit like Rashomon, to see the characters in multiple viewpoints,” explains Roszak. A compassionate Buddhist figure, Kwan Yin, moves throughout, witnessing all, and is represented by both a female dancer and a male martial artist. Wushu artists embody assorted characters. Writer James Janko, a former Vietnam combat vet who attended an early workshop version, commented afterward that the character of the soldier reveals “precisely what is ignored in most current discussions of war: the haunted consciousness of the man who kills.”
The hardest part of converting Kingston's work to dance, continues Roszak, was in integrating all elements. “The world holds everything,” she observes, “from the most peaceful, beautiful moment to the darkest aspects of human nature.” To integrate the different arts disciplines, to blend the emotional trajectory with the other elements, to have all the components exist in the same theatrical world - those were her challenges.
As for Kingston, who watched a few early rehearsals “with a completely open mind,” she was content to leave the task of integration to Danse Lumière. “I feel that I've written the material in the only way I can,” she says. “It's up to others to find different words if necessary.” Her mantra of encouragement to Roszak: “Just keep going. Keep developing. Get to crescendo, resolution, reconciliation.”
Roszak notes that just as the soldier in her production struggles to tell his painful tales, so too do we, the audience, have difficulty in listening. Yet the piece constantly moves from the dark side into the light, to the beauty of life - seeking images that embody both the yin and the yang, as Roszak explains. “We need to grapple with what came before the Gulf War and Iraq to understand the stories,” she explains. “We need to witness before we can go on.” As Kingston writes at the end of The Fifth Book of Peace, “The reasons for peace, the definitions of peace, the very idea of peace have to be invented, and invented again.”
A QUARTERLY REVIEW OF DANCE - VOL. 28, NO. 4 AUTUMN 2011
by Rita Felciano
Dancer, actress, writer Kathryn Roszak founded her Danse Lumière in 1996 to more intensively pursue concepts of dance theater that are based on literary (poet Gary Snyder, novelist Maxine Hong Kingston) or scientific (astronomy) sources.
One of her long-lived endeavors, most recently performed at Cal Performances Fall Free for All - a daylong celebration of the arts on the Berkeley Campus - is based on Roszak's immersing herself in the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Intelligent, theatrically effective and emotionally rich, Pensive Spring brings to life the complexity of the poetry and the personality of one of America's most intriguing artists.
Roszak assigned Dickinson's character to a singer, an actress and a dancer. She used to take the dancer's part herself but today the role is given to ballet dancer Hally Bellah-Guther with Roszak stepping into the role of the diarist and letter-writer. Soprano Kristin Clayton performed a selection from Gordon Getty's The White Election, a song cycle based on Dickinson's poetry. Getty is a rather conservative composer but these settings display lovely vocal lines and a deft sense for the poetry. Some of them tend toward the operatic - especially as interpreted by Clayton - but others are elegiac or wispy and reminiscent of folk songs. Roszak's choreography - though limited, given the space limitations - responds sensitively to the music's nuances. Bellah-Guther is a tiny dancer most effective in the frolicking passages; her gestures, however, tend to the overly dramatic. Roszak is quite a good actress. The former dancer still moves with considerable grace though her greatest asset today is a beautifully modulated alto voice and immaculate diction. She imbued Dickinson with the sparkle and a wit that is more easily perceptible in her letters than in the poetry. The interaction between the three performers was well designed; "Pensive" flowed with an easy grace. (September 25, 2011, Hertz Hall, UC Berkeley)
In Dance: a publication of Dancers' Group, San Francisco
Reinventing Emily - May 2011
A Choreographer's Quest to Reinvent Repertory
by Kathryn Roszak
With my company, Danse Lumière (formerly Anima Mundi), a small-scale dance-theater group, I delve into large themed projects that lead me into deeper engagement with the subjects; I create unique repertory pieces, which are performed extensively in multiple venues, over a period of many years, for an audience different than usual.
I choose a collaborative way of working that takes an intense commitment on my part, and the benefit is in the long term. My projects don't necessarily fit the usual funding time-lines and I have been frustrated by guidelines forcing artists to tailor their works to fit. I've steered clear of dreaming up pieces to obtain funding, but have instead focused on taking time to deepen the work, relying on the "buzz" around the piece itself to produce intriguing partners and venues. I made a conscious decision to move away from producing an annual dance season, eliminating the constant need to create new pieces. Rather, my pieces are like books -- they necessitate an in-depth gestation period and then a longer time in the public eye. This requires patience. Recognition often comes from outside the dance sphere.
The longest-running piece of Dance Lumière's is the exploration Pensive Spring; A Portrait of Emily Dickinson. In its twelfth year since creation, it returns this May  to the place of its inception in 1998, the Julia Morgan-designed Berkeley City Club.
The piece involves three different artists -- a dancer, a singer, and an actress -- portraying Emily Dickinson, the much-misunderstood enigmatic poet. I'm focusing on something we've lost touch with these days -- the intimacy of the written word and what it reveals about relationships, nature, death, even madness. For Pensive Spring I edited the poet's letters and selected poetry to reflect the natural seasons as well as the poet's states of mind. I chose music by composer Gordon Getty that embodies the poetry, so that the choreography is shaped by songs revealing Dickinson's psyche and imagery. Perhaps it is this "Rashomon"-like perspective, offering different windows into the poetry, and letting the viewer feel that the whole piece takes place in Emily Dickinson's mind, that has led to the piece's longevity. Dickinson's poetry is a paradox -- she is of her time, and outside of it, very radical and psychological in her view. I wanted the choreography and staging to echo this paradox with a seemingly traditional presentation, balletic choreography that gets fractured and reassembled. Dickinson is always a master -- a poet/scientist whose psychic eruptions are observed with a surgeon's skill. In her hands a domestic metaphor can turn to madness.
Living with a piece over time gives me the chance to work with new casts, who each lend wildly different interpretations to the material. The nature of this piece in particular is that three different artists work in solitude, not unlike the poet, in their respective disciplines, and then are brought together for ensemble rehearsals. I danced the role, then I both acted and danced, and now, I act the role. Incredible performers have changed the texture of the piece along the way: the power of San Francisco Opera soprano Elza van den Heever, the humor of Berkeley Repertory actress Lorri Holt, and former San Francisco Ballet dancer Nicole Starbuck brought out dramatic intensity. In our current cast, soprano Kristin Clayton draws out Emily's passionate humanity while dancer Hally Bellah-Guther brings angular drama.
The settings for the piece, as with much of Danse Lumière's work, have played a central part in the creative process. The piece resonates differently in its various venues: the intimate drawing rooms of the Falkirk Mansion Cultural Center, San Rafael, gave a feeling of the house's claustrophobic, period interior with the natural world looming ever-present outside the windows. The larger, 500-seat theatre at the University of San Francisco contained Dickinson's world in a sparse black-box with lighting playing a key role. Pensive Spring has an ongoing relationship with the Berkeley City Club, having been performed there originally in conjunction with the Aurora Theatre's production of The Belle of Amherstin 1998, and subsequently being presented there last fall by Berkeley Chamber Performances. This spring the Club will present the work in the light-filled ballroom.
Kathryn Roszak's recent productions include "The Fifth Book of Peace", a tale of a soldier's psyche, with Maxine Hong Kingston, Lines BFA, and Vietnam veterans (at Dance Mission) and "The Star Dances", collaborating with U.C. Berkeley astronomers (at Herbst Theatre). "Pensive Spring: A Portrait of Emily Dickinson" performs at the Berkeley City Club, May 1, 2011 at 2pm.
Literary Review & Calendar for the West - October 31, 2010
Three Musing Women: A Dickinson Triptych
a review by Sandra M. Gilbert
Three musing women dressed in Dickinson's iconic white, three arts of representation: Kathryn Roszak's Pensive Spring -- A Portrait of Emily Dickinson, onstage at the Berkeley City Club on October 19, offered spoken, sung, and danced performances of magical words from the great poet's letters and poems. The three artists were alive with the intensity of imagination and feeling that animates all the writer's work. Kathryn Roszak's incarnation of the famous recluse is a woman of poise, maturity, wit, and (sometimes) wistfulness, far from the little "pattering" presence described by her sometime patron Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Her portrait of the artist in "pensive spring" locates Dickinson in a season of writing, reading, and reaching out to the world, with her extraordinary language uttered in rich, suave cadences. And these keenly shaped cadences are reinforced by Gordon Getty's music, vigorously rendered by Kristin Clayton's strong and skilled soprano.
Kathryn Roszak as Emily
Rendered with equal vigor at the piano by Kristin Pankonin, Getty's music also shapes and shadows the impassioned dancing of Hally Bellah-Guther, who sweeps across the stage like an embodiment of the yearning soul that Dickinson's poems often simultaneously reveal and conceal, as she tells "all the Truth" but "tell[s] it slant." Why did Dickinson take to wearing white from 1860 on? No one is completely sure, although she claimed "a White election." Was she the child she impersonated for Higginson? Was she a disappointed bride, like Dickens's Miss Havisham? Had she turned herself into a symbol of mystery, like Melville's Moby Dick? Or all of the above, and more?
Whatever the poet's secret was (and she herself boasted, "Big my Secret -- but it's bandaged"), Roszak's thoughtful directing lures us to want to try to grasp it. And the inspired combination of speech, song and dance that the three white-clad performers present in their triptych beautifully emphasizes the enduring vision of a world elsewhere that Dickinson articulated in one of my favorites among her verses, a vision of "a morn by men unseen-- / Whose maids upon remoter green / Keep their seraphic May," as well as her perpetual and poignant longing:
Like thee to dance--like thee to sing--
People upon the mystic green--
I ask, each new May morn.
I wait thy far--fantastic bells--
Announcing me in other dells--
Unto the different dawn!
We have to hope that Roszak's company, appropriately named Danse Lumière, will restage this mystic, musical triptych again soon.
Generations Beat Online
E-News of the Journalists Network on Generations - Volume 12, Number 6 - March 15, 2012
The Arts Beat: Spank Michael McClure with 80 Roses
by Paul Kleyman
The venerable poet - his handsome vigor belying his nearly 80 years - stood patiently beside the piano, clad in black under his sea-foam swell of white hair, as he waited to catch the next rhythmic wave for bending the notes of another verse. Jazz virtuoso George Brooks eased pink fingers bar-to-bar over ivories and ebonies. He glanced up and Michael McClure peered down to pick up the beat for a phrase or verse from his large blue folder. A shawled crone and younger woman with a golden fall of hair danced, circling the ruddy head of a ceramic horse sculpted vertically in full whinny.
The stars of the premier performance of McClure's "Mysteriosos," soulfully transported by Brooks on piano and saxophone, gave the sold-out if compact audience of about 150 at the Berkeley Jazzschool a rose-fresh scent to the daisy-chain cliché of poetry read to against jazz rhythms. I couldn't help but think of the now-classic kinescope of McClure's friend Jack Kerouac chanting his poems on late-night TV, while standing beside a sleek grand piano played by host Steve Allen. But McClure's evening wasn't a nostalgic rehash of a tired custom.
What was new for McClure was the choreography and performance by Danse Lumière's director Kathryn Roszak, with Los Angeles-based guest dancer Lissa Resnick. Roszak and Resnick scribed the poems in a calligraphy of limbs, although Roszak, at 50, proved too lithe and lovely to carry off her portrayal of a dancing crone, an image she drew from the poems, very convincingly. She only proved that 50 is the new eternal.
Roszak approached McClure about collaborating after she read the beat-scene icon's 2010 volume, "Mysteriosos." The poetry collection is titled in homage to enigmatic pianist Thelonious Monk's 1958 album of that name. McClure had never partnered with a dance company before, and was, as always, ready for something new.
Their selection of just a few poems harmonized beautifully with the dance and movement, syncopated with McClure's intensely ecological images: "See the little sparrow with her eyes on the hawk / Everything around is just more talk / Don't use a knife to pound in a nail / Spank me with a rose / I'm headed for jail." There were only hints of McClure's signature "Grahhs," his deep vocalizations asserting the powers of the earth, or of his political anguish. But the "clanking of trucks, thunder-shaking waves, and the taste of mangos" surprised and sweetened the audience's appetite for more.
As I watched, enchanted throughout the performance, I thought this might be a perfect time for more such collaborations with fine artists of the new old age to bring poetry a new life through such collaborations. Roszak has worked in the past with the great Gary Snyder and others, but why not a revitalization - not a mere revival - of the jazz-poetry tradition?
Roszak mentioned after the performance that she'd like to develop other such programs for a larger venue, for example, the Berkeley Repertory Theater, next door to the Jazzschool. Judging by the full audience earlier this month and the enthusiastic response, I wonder if rep theaters around the country might do well to consider harmonizing the muses for young and old, especially given the current poetry revival. Meanwhile, what did I do with that rose?
ASTRONOMICAL SOCIETY OF THE PACIFIC - VOL. 39 NO. 1 - WINTER 2010
Reaching Out: Dance as Astronomical Outreach
Conveying the dynamic nature of the universe to the general public is a challenge.
by Bethany Cobb
Astronomy is renowned for exposing the intrinsic beauty of the universe. What a single Hubble Space Telescope image cannot capture, however, is that astronomy is also kinetic: violent and chaotic, rhythmical and graceful, at turns languid and swift.
This presents an interesting challenge. How can astronomers convey the dynamic nature of the universe to the general public? Animations and computer simulations are one obvious pathway. Less conventional methods, however, have the power to attract new audiences and even to challenge our own minds.
Combining dance and astronomy is clearly a non-traditional approach, but these seemingly disparate realms can be fused successfully to educate and inspire an audience. Dance is defined by motion and is a powerful tool for expressing the character of the ever-changing universe. The profound nature of dance also allows it to connect organically with the audience. Perhaps most importantly, the non-threatening artistry of dance may even attract members of the general public who might otherwise be intimidated by the science of astronomy.
During the last year, I had the pleasure of working with choreographer Kathryn Roszak on a dance/astronomy collaboration inspired by the 2009 International Year of Astronomy. I am not a dancer and have no experience with professional dance other than a sincere appreciation for the performing arts. But this unconventional project has significantly expanded my vision of astronomy public outreach.
Kathryn Roszak is an artist with considerable experience translating novel, scholarly concepts into dance. Her dance company, Danse Lumière, creates dance theater linking arts, sciences, and the humanities. Kathryn and I met at the beginning of 2009 through our teaching at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UC Berkeley. I was a new instructor at the Institute, beginning my first class: "Six Questions for Modern Astronomy." When we met, Kathryn was preparing a dance inspired by astronomy ("Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler") for Humanities West's Fall 2009 program. Humanities West is a non-profit organization in San Francisco.
Kathryn was excited about learning more about the universe. I provided her with articles regarding the newest discoveries in astronomy. Kathryn invited me to attend rehearsals of "The Star Dances" to discuss astronomy with the dancers. At the rehearsals, I was impressed by how astronomy was encapsulated into the dance both in apparent and subtle, imaginative ways. "The Star Dances" are accompanied by a piano version of Gustav Holst's "The Planets," with additional music by Eric Satie.
Prior to the October 2009 première of "The Star Dances," Humanities West invited us to talk about our collaboration at the Mechanics' Institute Library in San Francisco. I discussed the astronomical science, while Kathryn spoke about her creative process. I was pleased that our audience included more women than is typical for the average astronomy public lecture.
"The Star Dances" was presented at the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley on December 12, 2009, as an interactive family program. We interspersed the dance with a multi-media astronomy presentation. To help the kids connect the dance with the science that I explained, Kathryn and the dancers demonstrated specific dance movements before each section was performed. For example, I showed videos of material streaming from the Sun into space, and talked about how these particles impact Mercury and even cause the aurora on Earth. The dancers then illustrated a part of the "Mercury" dance in which they interact by tossing around an imaginary ball.
This program also involved active audience participation. During the talk, the audience answered questions about astronomy. At the end of the program, a group of kids (and parents) became particles moving around the universe and forming into a solar system. Inflatable models of the planets added to the excitement! We believe we succeeded in our goal of inspiring in our young audience an interest in, and enthusiasm for, both the arts and science.
This exciting combination of astronomy and dance promotes intellectual curiosity and makes both subjects accessible to new audiences. Therefore, we plan to continue our collaboration in the future. "The Star Dances" depict, with form and movement, the universe's energy, grace, and even playfulness, and we hope our program illustrates that science public outreach can successfully incorporate art and beauty.
BETHANY COBB is a National Science Foundation Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow at UC Berkeley, where she studies gamma-ray bursts and engages in public outreach, including teaching at the Berkeley Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.
A publication of Dancers' Group, San Francisco - October 2009
Glancing at the Stars
by Kate Law
On October 2nd Humanities West opens its 25th Anniversary Season with "Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler: Redefining our Place in the Universe," a two-day program of lectures, discussions, and the premiere of Kathryn Roszak's "The Star Dances." This event is a celebration of the International Year of Astronom- honoring the 400th anniversary of Galileo's first use of the telescope in 1609.
"The Star Dances" is the result of a collaboration between Roszak and Dr. Bethany Cobb, a National Science Foundation/UC Berkeley post-doctorate fellow. The dances take inspiration from the latest star-mapping by astronomers from UC Berkeley and from new research on colliding galaxies. Roszak and Cobb will also give a pre-program lecture on Thursday, September 24, at the Mechanic's Institute. This is the start of an ongoing investigation that will eventually grow. By December when the piece is presented again at Lawrence Hall in Berkeley it will become more interwoven with text and multi-media images.
The goal of presenting a work of dance as the only artistic expression in the midst of a two-day scientific forum is to illustrate the physics of astronomy in a format that an audience will relate to. Roszak sees "Star Dances" as a perfect fit for this arrangement. "The dance provides a visual, poetic interpretation of scientific concepts," she said. "Space is vast and concepts can be abstract and mind-bending. Having the dancers as the cosmic elements humanizes the science. I feel through performance it is possible to more directly access cosmological mythology. Through movement we can show harmony, violence, and the ordering of the universe."
Cobb, whose role at Berkeley is, in part, to communicate astronomy to ordinary non-scientist type people, believes that dance will pique people's intellectual interest in science. She hopes through this program and others like it she can bring astronomy back into people's daily lives. Astronomy, star-gazing, and the mythology that surrounds it used to be an enormously important aspect of people's lives. Today, we can't even see the stars at night unless we are camping and the most attention people pay to astronomy is when they read their horoscope in tabloid magazines. Roszak mused on this topic noting that "we are all going around in our cars, living our daily lives, and the entire cosmos is happening all around us and we don't even notice. There are massive collisions in space that happen all the time and we don't have a clue." Hopefully "Star Dances" will get audiences to think more deeply about the cosmos.
The project came into being because Roszak was in discussion with Humanities West about creating a work set to the Music of the Spheres, one of "Star Dances" accompaniments. She wanted to learn more about astronomy so she looked into classes, saw that Dr. Cobb's mission is to make astronomy accessible and signed up for Cobb's continuing education class. After class she talked to Cobb about her choreography and since then Dr. Cobb has been interested in the entire process. She has been a part of the process by writing letters in support of the project, giving ideas for costuming, attending rehearsals, and giving feedback on the dancers' animation of the ideas of scientists.
Roszak has since also brought Dr. Carl Pennypacker into her collaborative process. Pennypacker is a UC Berkeley physicist and educator who is also contributing feedback as well as musical composition to the work. In her research process she has also consulted Dr. Nao Suzuki, who together with Pennypacker, works on dark energy. In addition to local observatories, she has also visited Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles and the Huntington Library in Pasadena.
Roszak is tremendously pleased to be collaborating with these scientists. She has had a long interest in combining dance and science. In the past she has explored the stars and the northern lights as well as geometric patterns and mathematics. One of the concepts that she finds most inspiring is the fact that our bodies are made of the same particles as the stars, so having the dancers perform is a visceral way to embody that.
I asked Roszak about her process of generating movement based on technological star maps. She explained that "in the current choreography, Kepler's "Music of the Spheres" is at the core. Images of elliptical orbits and colliding galaxies provide images for the development of movement material. Some of this is created through structured improvisation with the dancers." She has also incorporated some of Cobb's scientific "demo's" and the movement found in them into choreography.
"Star Dances" is also set to a piano duet version of Gustav Holst's "The Planets." As the music is more familiar in orchestral versions that bring to mind the vastness of the Star Wars soundtrack, she opted for something less familiar with few popular connotations. This very dynamic piano music is combined with music by Eric Satie which is more lyrical and has beautiful harmony.
The piece is set on four dancers who are working with orbits and ellipses. The movement is conscious of special patterns and how one dancer's movement affects another because they represent heavenly bodies with gravitational pulls. Ancient ideas of astronomy and mythology are being examined as well, especially the three muses (represented by the three female dancers) who are part of the divine order of the universe.
I asked Roszak if she felt at all intimidated to present her take on the movement of the stars to a roomful of astrophysicists. She responded that she was not. "Some of the people who I am working seem to be aesthetically interested in their scientific work and want to engage with it more," she said. "I feel excited about this cross disciplinary conversation. I have my perspective on things and they have theirs. I am coming from the studio and they are coming from the lab."
If you want to see Roszak's take on the stars while also learning a great deal from the other presentations check out "Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler: Redefining our Place in the Universe," on Friday, October 2 at 8pm at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco.
Kate Law is a dance artist, aerialist, and co-director of Bow & Sparrow. She loves writing about and being involved in the dance community. Katelaw.org