Cultural Conversation: The Intersection of Dance and Deviation

by Dr. Gaylen Phillips

David Neumann researches movement for RESTLESS EYE. Image courtesy of mancc.org.

When Dr. Karin L. Brewster, Associate Professor and Director of the Center for Demography and Population Health at Florida State University, got a call from Ansje Burdick at FSU’s Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography (MANCC), she was a little puzzled. Choreographer David Neumann and his collaborator Sybil Kempson wanted a meeting with Karin to discuss statistics. David is a 2007 MANCC Choreographic Fellow who is currently on the FSU campus as a Visiting Artist where his work RESTLESS EYE is currently in development.

This piece is scheduled to premier at the New York Live Arts Partnership (supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts) on March 24, 2012. David and Sybil, accompanied by Ansje Burdick, MANCC’s Manager of Artist Services and Community Engagement, met with Karin on an October afternoon.

Dr. Karin Brewster

Karin didn’t know what to expect. What she did know is what David’s fact sheet said about his work: “Neumann’s company, advanced beginner group, will explore the realm between thought and behavior, between describing life and experiencing it . . . [they] will source various data sets and statistics based on everyday phenomena and translate this information into a deeply physical and human expression.” Sybil is developing the text.

“I liked David immediately; he has tremendous energy and charisma. What I really enjoyed was his curiosity. This drives his work,” Karin said.  David readily admits that his curiosity about everything has always been the biggest factor in his life and it is the most important tool in the development of his art. During this initial conversation, it became clear that David is interested in learning things that challenge his natural inclinations; he wants to follow where inquiry and process might lead with no preconceived ideas of the outcome.

Sybil, as the writer, was interested in the subjectivity of language/art versus the “hard rules” of science, and Karin responded that “science doesn’t exist without imagination.” But how do curiosity, data sets, and statistics translate into choreography? “That was the part I couldn’t grasp,” said Karin. “So the conversation with David and Sybil was fascinating.”

One thing the three talked about was the importance of repetition and variation to dance and to statistics; Karin even taught David and Sybil how to calculate a standard deviation, still not knowing how it would inform their work.  But, “when I attended his informal showing of the piece on October 27, I came to a new level of appreciation.” She laughed, “I’m not saying I fully understand how and what he does, but the process – the intellectual inquisitiveness – was a huge eye-opener for me. I had not thought about dance in such a way before. I now better appreciate the inspiration and originality that goes into choreographing a dance project, as well as the rigor. It was fascinating to see a performance piece in the making and, in particular, to realize the similarities in the process of creating a dance and ‘creating’ research. “

Karin was intrigued enough to ask to meet with David a second time; his visit on the FSU campus is limited and she said, “I don’t know whether this is silly, but it struck me during the October 27 showing as I listened to David explaining his process – particularly about the importance of data collection to his piece – that he might want to learn about how scientists evaluate the probability that their results represent what’s ‘true’ in the ‘real world.’ This evaluation process is where the standard deviation is truly important, and it reveals the leap of faith we make when we present our findings as reliable representations of reality.”

The second interview, then, took David a bit deeper into the underlying machinery of statistics, beyond the numbers to the realm of interpretation. “We can take ten random samples from the same population and get ten sets of statistics.  So, how do we know which set of statistics is right?  We can’t, but we can know that some sets are more likely to be right than others,” Karin recalls telling David.  “Statistics like dance is an approximation to something, a representation of some piece of the world.” This was an “aha!” moment for both of them as they realized the art of dance and the art of statistics are more connected than may at first seem obvious.

“This was one of the most fascinating and engaging encounters I have ever had,” Karin summed up. “David’s unique perspective has really given me some things to think about in my own research.”

Thanks to Karin Brewster, Ansje Burdick, Jennifer Caliennes, Ellie Couvault, Sybil Kempson and David Neumann.

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