Supermassive Black Hole

It is interesting to discover how choreographers find inspiration for a new piece and how they bring their ideas alive through dance. When David Bintley first announced he would do a ballet inspired by a physics equation, E=mc2, many were puzzled. How could Bintley turn an abstract mathematical statement into a ballet?

Using David Bodanis‘s biographical account of the eponymous equation as source material, Bintley started from its components (or ancestors) energy E, mass m, speed of light c and squared 2, to create his ballet’s three main movements, plus an interlude, The Manhattan Project. He then added choreographic nods to the related discoveries of scientists such as Michael Faraday, Antoine Lavoisier, Émilie du Châtelet, among others and, most importantly, to Albert Einstein.

While there is no need to know about physics or Relativity to appreciate the piece, there is more to Bintley’s imaginative dancing than meets the eye and as I have the  advantage of a high energy physics background, all those scientific references certainly added to my enjoyment:

Elisha Willis and Joseph Caley in BRB's E=mc2 Photo: Bill Cooper Source: BRB ©
Elisha Willis and Joseph Caley in BRB’s E=mc2 (Energy) Photo: Bill Cooper Source: BRB ©

In Energy, for instance, Bintley plays with Faraday’s idea of curling lines generated from a magnet’s interaction with electric currents so dancers curl their arms and hands throughout. An almost bare stage, a central projected strip of clouds, the piece starts with a bang and the corps de ballet come in and out, filling all the space, making swirling patterns to the pitching music. His choreographic framework is clearly Faraday’s engine: using the current of a power source near a dangling wire to charge a magnet Faraday visualised circular lines coming from it, which could “sweep” the wire and induce it to rotate magnetically as does the screw in the video below:

The swirling corps de ballet is to Bintley’s choreography what the circular magnetic lines are to Faraday, the main couple – Joseph Caley and Elisha Willis – acting as the dangling wire as they rotate around the ensemble of dancers and around each other in beautiful turns and pirouettes, with their burst of energy also echoing the electric currents printed in the costumes designed by Kate Ford.

Strikingly different Mass, with its shades of brown and a moody, melancholic violin score, revolves around three groups, each with two men and a woman, plus a central pas de deux for Gaylene Cummerfield and Matthew Lawrence. The women are lifted and moved around slowly, indicating heaviness, the influence of gravity and mass over every physical object. The focus on bodies and the various ways in which they can be used to create geometry (for instance the iconic image of the three lifted dancers in a triangle) as well as the various balances taken by the dancers across the stage all point to Lavoisier’s studies on mass conservation and his conclusions on the weight of substances before and after a chemical reaction. Bintley also reminds us of the connection between mass and energy when later on these dancers enter forming a compact mass, moving as a whole with their hands curling in the same way as the previous group.

in Mass. Samara Downs in The Manhattan Project. Photos: Bill Cooper. Source: BRB ©
Celine Gittens and Tom Rogers in Mass and Samara Downs in The Manhattan Project. Photos: Bill Cooper. Source: BRB ©

The interlude brings a red square of light in the background, a dancing white geisha and thunderous sound which develops into an explosion. This may be a short section but references to the atomic bombs and the destruction of  Hiroshima and Nagasaki could not be more direct. Though visually impacting I thought that Bintley could have done without this section, not least because it logically should have come after Celeritas2, although logic in this case would have made for a grim finale and I much prefer the dazzler we got.

A background wall of lights directed to the audience, with the dancers playfully running and doing grand jetés from the sides lead us to closing piece Celeritas2 (latin for swiftness) which uses notions of speed and wave-particle duality exhibited by light. Bintley reminds us that light waves are nothing but electricity and magnetism forever chasing each other in space, just like first soloist Alexander Campbell and principal Carol-Anne Millar when they “play catch” and switch between front and back, with oscillating movements.

Bintley reserves his most visually stunning trick for a climatic end which uses the ensemble of the corps. Looking at light in terms of particles he builds rows of dancers in non-stop soft soubresauts. The dancers propagate their light in waves from the front row all the way to the last, each individually a photon, a “light” particle and  collectively a “wave” of dance going all the way to the back of the stage. The ensemble suddenly stops and only then does the main couple break to the sides, in mind-blowing chaîné turns. He could not have devised a more crowd-pleasing, applause-generating number closer.

Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet in Celeritas². Photo: Roy Smiljanic Source: BRB ©
Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet in ‘Celeritas²’. Photo: Roy Smiljanic Source: BRB ©

Overall E=mc2 does an excellent job of translating a deep and abstract mathematical concept, the result of the work of an outstanding group of thinkers, into dance. The meaning of each movement was made clear through the choreography, by Peter Mumford’s remarkable use of lighting and via the enjoyable score from Australian composer Matthew Hindson. While the piece looks modern and fresh the steps are pure classical ballet which will allow it to live in the repertoire for many years to come.

Bintley’s new piece was bookended by the work of two Australian choreographers, Stanton Welch and Garry Stewart. Welch’s Powder, set to Mozart’s luscious Clarinet Concerto in A minor, had cheeky muses playing around with mere mortals. Whilst Mozart is not the easiest composer to dance to there are many bright points,  such as the sequences for male dancers which evoked four greek marble statues coming to life through synchronised jumps and balances (special mentions to Yasuo Atsuji and Joseph Caley) – and in the elegant pas de deux between Robert Parker and Natasha Oughtred.

Natasha Oughtred with Kosuke Yamamoto, Steven Montieth, Joseph Caley and Yasuo Atsuji Photo: Bill Cooper Source: BRB ©
Natasha Oughtred with Kosuke Yamamoto, Steven Montieth, Joseph Caley and Yasuo Atsuji in BRB’s Powder. Photo: Bill Cooper Source: BRB ©

It is impossible to look at the shape (dancers extending through rows of linear lights) and sound (strong/electronic beat) of Stewart’s The Centre and its Opposite and not think of Forsythe‘s In the Middle Somewhat Elevated. But while the choreography is not very original it is certainly diverse in the interchange between modern extreme extensions and standard classical ballet combinations: deep grand pliés with arms on fifth, adagio dancing  (developpés going into a attitude en promenade and balances on arabesque) and a sequence of petit allegro steps (jeté, jeté, glissade, changements). I find Stewart’s use of a large group of dancers well judged since it allows many younger artists to appear alongside more established principals, with some fantastic dancing from young promises Dusty Button (a crazy balance that went for ages), Aonghus Hoole and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson, as well as the elegant Robert Parker, who made the most of his beautiful classical line in a different, surprising context.

Dusty Button and Aaron Robison in BRB's The Centre and its Opposite Photo: Bill Cooper Source: BRB ©
Dusty Button and Aaron Robison in BRB’s The Centre and its Opposite Photo: Bill Cooper Source: BRB ©

This was a well-thought triple bill, which showed the diversity of the company and a new work which is sure to become a staple. It also served as a perfect showcase not only for the company’s stars but also for their corps members. With all the pieces making the most of BRB’s ensemble, we have proof that in ballet as in nature, one really needs to gather mass to generate huge amounts of energy!

Her favourite ballets feel like good books – one can see them 1,000 times and they always feel fresh. Linda loves Giselle, all full-length MacMillan plus Song of the Earth, Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering, Balanchine’s Serenade and Agon, Ashton’s Scènes de Ballet and Symphonic Variations.

6 Comments

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  • April 8, 2010

    David D

    Now this is a ballet I would love to see as I love science. Being an engineer who also keeps up with all of the sciences as a hobby, I have often felt that perhaps dancers and engineers have nothing mental in common. I have known quite a few dancers with online profiles and they NEVER list science as an interest. So, it is interesting that a choreographer created a science-y ballet.

  • December 30, 2009

    Kool Thing « The Ballet Bag

    [...] Supermassive Black Hole – Our resident physicist analysed BRB’s new ballet based on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Perfect for the job. [...]

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