DNA, the stuff of life, is also the stuff of boring biology lectures. But it can be something else entirely in the hands, feet, arms, and legs of Dance Exchange, a Takoma Park company whose members hit the books to figure out how to bridge science and dance.
The result, Ferocious Beauty: Genome, a sprawling exploration into the nature and artistry of life’s creative force, comes to the Atlas Theater for four performances—as well as a training workshop for science teachers and a series of panels with biologists, geneticists, and ethicists from top research facilities.
“Looking at genetics has set in motion a new vocabulary for us,” says Liz Lerman, 59, founder of Dance Exchange. The one-time MacArthur genius grant recipient and her nine dancers, who range in age from 26 to 72, spent four years researching scientific methods by visiting labs across the United States, working with 34 genetic scientists and researchers from leading universities and government agencies. “Along the way we came to understand a lot,” Lerman says. “Dance companies and labs both work similarly—collaboratively, lots of inquiry, lots of questions, lots of teamwork and organization.”
The Washington, D.C., premiere of Ferocious Beauty: Genome follows the production’s February 2006 debut at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, as well as performances at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the Mayo Clinic Convention Center in Rochester, Minn. “Because of the extensive touring, it’s a better piece,” Lerman says. “The choreographic knowledge has continued to grow.” In the show, a lineup of dancers lie head-to-toe across the floor, switching places and reshuffling in a game of musical bodies; they represent DNA’s ladderlike configuration and the interchangeability of its various rungs.
“What science struggles with is explaining what science means to the rest of us,” says NIH evolutionary biologist Irene Eckstrand, who served as an adviser to Lerman, explaining scientific processes and terminology to the troupe. According to Lerman, bridging that gap wasn’t only a goal of her dance company but a goal of the scientific community as well. “When you cross disciplines, especially science, one of the first things they want is our representation,” Lerman says. “[T]hey want us to help them represent themselves to the public.”
Ferocious Beauty may incorporate an artistic approach to science education, but it is far from a two-dimensional PowerPoint presentatiaon: It delves widely, from sections featuring a robed, contemplative Gregor Mendel (the 19th-century monk and father of modern genetics), to oversize video representations of genetic mutations, to a sexy dancer in bondage gear who represents the TATA box (a DNA sequence that binds genes together). For the scientists there are inside jokes; for the ethicists, complex conundrums about aging in the 21st century. And, for everyone, Lerman says, there’s beauty in the details of life’s origins.
“Beauty lets people watch longer. I think people would have turned away earlier otherwise.”
Dance Exchange performs Ferocious Beauty: Genome at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 26, 8 p.m. Friday, April 27, and Saturday, April 28, and at 4 p.m. Sunday, April 29, at the Atlas Performing Arts Center’s Lang Theatre, 1333 H St. NE. $37. (202) 399-7993.