Review: QUANTUM, Dance Centre (October 16, 2014)

Snap! Sizzle! Crack! Not a Rice Krispies commercial, but the beginning of the score used in QUANTUM. I was amazed at how this score used precise, location-based sound to add more depth to the performance. I was reminded of a Van de Graaf generator in terms of the crackly, somewhat menacing sounds that popped to the surface now and then. In truth, I was tempted, as I typically am when I hear a very engaging piece of music (or perhaps in this case we should say soundscape), to close my eyes and focus just on the sounds. But I did not want to give short shrift to the dancers and the lights, so my eyes stayed open.

The lights, which included what looked like large black heat lamps, were another heavily choreographed aspect of this work. These lamps acted like swinging pendulums. I kept trying to think how to calculate the period of a pendulum (here`s how: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pendulum).

Part of the challenge of consuming and reviewing artistic work is knowing whether to include outside contextual information or not. Do you need to know Beethoven’s biography, or Kurt Cobain’s, to appreciate their work, or is that strictly unnecessary?

QUANTUM, as the name hints at, came out of Gilles Jobin’s artistic residency at CERN in Switzerland, a particle accelerator which sends atoms on long journeys at high speeds where they crash into each other and thereby produce interesting information from the mashed-up particles that result from these high-speed collisions. Scientists are well aware of the fantastical nature of their work — the idea that you can learn more about atoms and their constituent parts from studying the results of manufactured collisions is mind-boggling if you think about it.

This sort of particle physics has been seen as a precursor to the current conceptualization of “Big Data”. Physicists, when they do these experiments, gather every bit of data they can, regardless of what hypotheses they might have in mind for their original experiments. The data provides the basis for investigation, rather than investigation providing the basis for data.

The information requirements of such a data-heavy enterprise led to physicist Tim Berners Lee, who worked at CERN, creating the World Wide Web in 1989 (the Internet was invented in embryonic form in 1969). The Web is one of the most obvious examples of how scientific research can have unexpected spinoff benefits.

But back to QUANTUM. Compagnie Gilles Jobin of Switzerland created this piece based on inspiration from CERN. The composer Carla Scaletti created a score that directly uses research data. The costumes were geometric and looked like they could be schematic diagrams.

My friend and I both have some university training in physics, although it’s been a long time now. So watching the dancers, we could see kinetic energy, potential energy, Brownian motion, chemical bonds weakened and re-formed, magnetic attraction and repulsion, and maybe even the creation of the world. Would we have seen these things if we didn`t know about the CERN connection? Who knows – but in the real world, nothing is ever seen or experienced in a context-free void. The observer always affects the observation, a canonical principle of quantum physics.

Contemporary dance is always a challenge for me. As I have mentioned before, it feels like a language that I just slightly know. QUANTUM was one of those pieces where I felt engaged throughout, even if I was unsure of the interpretation. And, as I mentioned before, the soundtrack was stunning. Every aspect of this work was carefully considered and constructed; it was a pleasure just to see and hear and feel how it all comes together.

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