For Minneapolis performance group, dance and science collide

It doesn’t look like a typical dance rehearsal, with a handful of performers mindlessly wandering about a gym, randomly colliding into each other, sometimes with a shove thrown in, running at top speed one moment and then slowing to a walk in the next.

But that’s what it might look like if molecules could dance.

The performance is the product of an unusual collaboration between two professors at the University of Minnesota: David Odde, a biomedical engineer, and Carl Flink, chair of the U’s Theatre Arts & Dance Department and artistic director of a Twin Cities dance company called Black Label Movement.

The result — having dancers model their movements on the violent, chaotic life of molecules in living cells deep within
University of Minnesota biomedical engineer David Odde, center, along with Black Label Movement artistic director and U arts and dance chairman Carl Flink, right, form a “cell” with Black Label Movement dancers Tuesday, April 9, 2013, at the U. (Pioneer Press: Ben Garvin)
their own bodies — has taken Flink and his dancers in a novel direction in creating art.

And by watching, directing and even joining in the dance, scientists such as Odde may have found a tool that will help them better understand the tiny, unseen world inside cells, maybe even leading to insights on new ways to treat cancer.

The two professors will get a chance to teach the idea when they and Black Label Movement dancers give a presentation at a TEDMED 2013 conference Wednesday, April 17, in Washington, D.C.

Flink and Odde call their collaboration the Moving Cell Project, and it started with a chance meeting resulting from a mutual interest in catastrophes.

Both Flink and Odde were working on projects with the U’s Institute for
Advanced Study. In Odde’s case, it was a research collaborative with his brother Thomas, a film scholar, that looked at catastrophes in engineering, film and biology.

And Flink was working on a dance with Black Label Movement called “Wreck,” which depicted the last moments of a dying ship on Lake Superior.

When Flink and Odde met in 2007, they wondered if dancers could portray the turbulent world of biological cells, specifically the behavior of a cell structure called microtubules, which can quickly switch from growth to falling apart in a process labeled “catastrophe.”

Microtubules are important for the biologists because they play an essential role in cell division. Drugs targeting the mechanics of microtubules are used to treat cancer.

But portraying the molecules in a microtubule is a challenge for the dancer because those little bits of material live in an “extreme collisional environment,” where molecules ricochet around, smashing into each other at speeds of more than 1,400 miles per hour.

“It’s an extremely violent space,” Flink said. “We had to learn to run into each other.”

Flink and his dancers at first tried wearing oversized, padded sumo-wrestler costumes to prevent injuries. But the outfits proved too ungainly. They considered wearing military-grade body armor, but that was too expensive.

The dancers ended up using martial-arts techniques to hit without hurting.

They also used some unusual props to help act out the molecular world.

They increased the chaos and broke molecular bonds by hitting each other with big gym balls. They used coin flips to randomize their movements. They bounced off the sides of a big chain-link cage, representing the walls of a cell, which they assembled in a former torpedo factory in Northeast Minneapolis.

They tried to shut off their minds to be more molecular. But they discovered some artistic possibilities in the kinetic collisions of cell molecules.

“As sports show, the impact between two bodies is a very dramatic event,” Flink said.

Using the physical techniques developed in the Moving Cell Project, Flink developed a 19-minute dance piece called “HIT.”

Premiering in 2011, “HIT” violated expectations of dance as embodying beauty, grace and gentleness. Instead, here was a dance “in which the prohibition against violent physicality is removed,” and the performers were ramming, grabbing, kicking and jumping on each other. . .

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