Updated: Jan 12, 2019
By Cristian Zaelzer
GROUND starts with bird sounds and country airs. The lighting palette is a fantastical cloak over five dancers who awake to their own circadian patterns. Consciousness comes to them, while their unconscious rhythms continue driving the life in their bodies. The dancers bounce on trampolines in a linear formation, making a rhythm that matches the beat of the blood leaving my heart towards my brain. They move up and down creating a sinusoidal wave, while the changing lights play over them like the sun crossing the seasons.
I had a chance to witness this interplay of movement, light, and sound at the premiere of GROUND and REBO(U)ND at Agora de la Danse in Montreal. These dance performances created by Caroline Laurin-Beaucage are based on the neuroscience of Circadian Rhythms and the physicality of Gravity.
I met Caroline Laurin-Beaucage in 2016. Along with 44 other students and faculty members, she participated in the Convergence pilot project that explored transdisciplinary collaborations between neuroscientists from the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre, and artists of the Fine Arts Faculty of Concordia University. Caroline is a choreographer, a professor, but overall, a researcher. She has been fascinated by the brain and the way it controls the mechanics of body movement for a long time. She explores those subjects using repetition, cycles, and memory. Caroline came to the Convergence project to learn about the scientific research process and the areas of research being explored in neuroscience today. After interacting with other participants, she became interested in circadian rhythms, thinking that this direction could help her explore some fundamental questions that had been circling in her mind: “Do we really have free will? And how do we relate to each other?”
The word circadian derives from the Latin circa, "around", and diem, meaning "day". It describes the cycle of approximately 24 hours to which organisms on Earth are bound. It is also the core of chronobiology, a field of the life sciences which studies biological temporal rhythms (such as daily, tidal, weekly, seasonal, or annual rhythms) based on the tight temporal production and recycling of the so-called "clock proteins." Circadian rhythms control the metabolic activities of every living cell in human beings, regulating the time at which different biological processes happen in the body. Sleep, wakefulness, stress, temperature control, cell regeneration, and hormone production are some of the activities affected by these automatic cycles.
In GROUND, Caroline used light and the rhythm produced by the dancers bouncing on trampolines to introduce the idea of daily rhythms into her choreography, a way of travelling through time. “I have changes of light that are super dynamic,” she said, “so, it is like we are passing through time very fast.” Then the trampoline is introduced to mark a new way to perceive the passage of time.
The dance becomes visceral, the action goes from the outside to the inside. My own thoughts get enclosed in the internal organs where everything becomes claustrophobic and intense. Caroline has created a rhythm that never ends, a rhythm that compresses the organs, the cells, the molecules, and the reactions. The intensity of the work is astonishing. I feel the rhythm that governs every single action, from thirst to sleep, from sex to consciousness.
In talking about circadian rhythms and natural cycles, I wondered where do we start and where to we go in GROUND. Caroline said: “We are trying to go back to the earliest version of us, but even if I would like to say we are going back to the beginning, you can’t, because the body went through a journey that is not going to be the same anyway. What I found really interesting about circadian rhythms is that the 23.5 hours of the rhythm does not have any memory. So, after 23.5 hours the clock starts again from zero. I found this to be a really interesting relationship between the body and the memory cycle with the cycle starting anew after 23.5 hours.”
Music played a role in exploring this concept. The piece starts with just bird sounds, which are inspired by circadian rhythms, but also uses environmental sounds and music with lyrics. The scenography and placement of dancers was inspired by Caroline’s reading of Kandel’s work Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures. Caroline explained that “the descriptions of how our brain perceives and reads abstract art, and how these perceptions affect us made me decide to put [the dancers] in a row.”
GROUND and REBO(U)ND are beautiful examples of science inspiring artistic exploration. The challenge of reading and decoding scientific information in papers and books can be intimidating. To face the challenge, Caroline focused and tried to use the information that spoke to her most, that she related to, in order to influence the dancers.
Our discussion turned to Caroline’s experience working with neuroscientists as part of the Convergence project: “It was really comforting to learn that in every field there are people interested in research, to find more, invest, and dig into. I was very impressed with how the neuroscientists also felt alone in their research, because they tried to figure out something that is unknown. And it is the same thing that happens in creation, you trying to understand something that you don’t know about and trying to put it out there.” According to Caroline, scientists and artists are very similar in how they “are trying to take time to understand and put words on things that we are not able to name […], we are holding the same questions.”
“I remember going into the lab,” Caroline said, thinking about the neurons she observed through a microscope during a lab visit. “I feel like, looking at the brain is like looking at the universe,” she continued. The brain is a universe that researchers are trying to understand with their observations and experiments. “They are trying to figure out how it is growing and how it is transforming information. [This] is exactly what we get inspired by as artists you know: visual, texture, feeling.”
My mind comes back to the present, to those bodies shaking on those trampolines. The expression on the dancers' faces, sometimes happy, sometimes desperate, other times insane or calm. I wonder myself what message I should capture, what is the idea behind their faces. My own guts start acting in concert with them. I feel trapped and conscious of the sensation, but I do enjoy it. I wonder about my own insides and body functions. It makes me think about how contemporary art communicates feelings to people. In my opinion there is not much difference in the complexity of the issues that contemporary artists and scientist explore. As scientists, we have a hard time to communicate the ideas and the feeling that research ignites in us when we explore. For artists, especially contemporary artists, I guess it is kind of the same process: trying to communicate ideas that people see as so complex and so different. I wanted to know Caroline’s point of view on this and how she has expressed similar ideas in her own work.
“I am not expecting that people will come to my show and say ’oh, she is talking about circadian rhythms, it’s so clear,’” she said. “But I am hoping that they experience something that kind of affects their neurological system. So, they can experience something that is not completely known in the world, and they can relate with those human beings doing this.” Caroline reflected on the immensely demanding routine of GROUND, “I just hope we leave something strong enough, so it makes us just see the world a little bit differently or just picks our imagination, so we are curious about what it does to our body, what experiences do we have looking at this trance going on and on.”
Caroline’s fascination with circadian rhythms also lies in the way these cycles create deep connections between living beings: “We are connected to this world, to this planet, to the sun, with the daylight. Even if we have different beliefs, or different cultures, if we are not following a certain cycle, we are out of our track. […] The person on the South pole will experience their circadian rhythms as much as me in Canada, in a different way, but we are all born with that, starting even when we are in the womb.”
We then spoke briefly about REBO(U)ND, a giant ghostly projection on the side of a building of dancers floating and suspended in space. The idea behind this project was to slow down gravity. The dancers were filmed as they jumped on trampolines, but from a vantage point under the trampolines. Caroline equated the effect to the “dreamy side of gravity”. The dancers are going through a cycle that is stretched out in time, changing the viewer’s perspective of how gravity operates. Caroline decided to adopt this perspective as a counterpoint to the fast-paced reality of city living: “Let’s take the time to see the body closely, this huge body, on this huge building – ok, this is us.” She added, “because the movie is in slow motion and in black and white, there is also something that could be similar to being in the womb or a newborn, or being in a place of unknown territory.” More than twenty artists and professionals collaborated with Caroline in both pieces, among them Kevin Jung-Hoo Park, also part of the first Convergence pilot.
Caroline revealed that she remains inspired by the inner-workings of the brain. Whereas art is often concerned with emotions and a state of being, she would like to “dig into the angles that we don’t see, or we don’t feel”. Connecting with the people who are doing cutting edge research in neuroscience is an access point for her endless fascination with the way the brain, our amazingly complex tool, operates. Caroline said about her participation in the Convergence project: “It was major to have that possibility […] to have an entry point and to really hear researchers talk also.”
In addition, Caroline pointed out that normally artists collaborate within their own art clusters: dance and music, dance and theater, dance and video, etc. In contrast, cross-discipline collaborations like dance and philosophy or dance and neuroscience remain largely unexplored. As a naturally curious person, Caroline is eager to keep learning. She welcomes the opportunity to connect with people outside her domain to learn from them, and praises universities and organizations that enable those links.
I asked Caroline about her plans for the future. “I have two or three other ideas for a show,” she said with a laugh, adding that by starting to dig into a subject she gets more and more inspired, her imagination takes off and all she wants to do is learn more. New ideas emerge from this wealth of information and merge with other ideas. Among her future work: “I have a sold show coming in December of 2019 that is working in memory that will probably come with an exhibit too.”
I left the show learning new things – learning by experiencing the knowledge I already have on a subject through a contemporary dance piece. This gave me a new perspective, expanding my understanding of why I do research and why I enjoy learning so much. Also, why I enjoy the company of people who think and do differently.
Caroline will be speaking to us on March 8th in a Convergence Sci-Art Art-Sci Talk. Her enthusiasm and love for learning is genuinely contagious and moving. I think trans-disciplinary collaborations, especially the ones that we push in Convergence offer us a magnificent gift. We get richer, we gain perspective, and we get a little bit better.
Editing: Nicole Avakyan