Brains of both audience members and performers were rapidly firing Thursday night during the high-energy dress rehearsal of BRAIN STORM, a dance production inspired by neuroscience that creates movement and imagery based on the brain.
The performance, held tonight and tomorrow night at 8 p.m. in the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, is the culmination of Everett Dance Theater's five-day residency at the University, exploring the intersection of art and science by combining neuroscience and dance. Other events included a panel discussion between scientists and artists, a Brain Cafe on Locked-In Syndrome and a dance-improvisation workshop. The company will host a hip-hop workshop in Granoff at 1 p.m Saturday.
"The brain and the body - you can't have one without the other," said Sokeo Ros, a company member performing in Friday night's show.
Get on your feet
Self-described as "cross-disciplinary, cross-generational and cross-cultural," Everett Dance Company is all about breaking through barriers.
"It's all about learning through action," said Aaron Jungels, artist and co-founder of Everett.
On Thursday, Everett hosted "On-Your-Feet Conversations about the Brain," a workshop with a stimulating mix of improvisation, dance and spoken word exercises in which participants moved side by side the dance company's professional members.
"See that scaffolding over there? That's an amygdala," said Dorothy Jungels, director and artistic director at the workshop. "And that sheet - that's the first brain," Jungels added, pointing to a gigantic white cloth hung from the ceiling.
Thursday's workshop represented a much larger part of the Everett's mission to making the arts accessible to a wide array of individuals. Founded in Providence in 1986 by Dorothy Jungels and her three children, the company runs a "one-room schoolhouse," where free dance, theater and singing classes are taught to low-income youth, said Aaron Jungels, Dorothy's son.
"The kids who a lot of times wouldn't have access to the arts can find a pathway to the arts through our school," he said. "A lot of the kids end up staying for years."
But Everett is also breaking through disciplinary boundaries, fostering conversation between scientists and artists. The company's first evening concert piece, "The Science Project," which premiered in 1992, portrayed a variety of physics experiments and delved into the history of the atomic bomb, said Aaron Jungels.
To get ideas for the performance, the company met with six state science teachers and worked with students after school to bring physics to the stage. The company did "all sorts of crazy stuff" like creating a gigantic balance with a sofa on one side and students on the other, Aaron Jungels said.
"We hung students from the ceilings - they were pendulums," he said with a smile.
Discovering the brain
The idea for BRAIN STORM, the company's seventh evening-length concert, stems from the experience of students at Everett's stage school for low-income youth.
"A lot of the kids in the school have learning disorders," Aaron Jungels said. "We craft our programs to fit students with those issues in their lives."
These students got the company thinking about the brain. Aaron Jungels said the company did extensive research to create BRAIN STORM - reading books, collecting articles and interviewing researchers at Brown.
The company approached Robert Davenport, associate director of the Biomedical Institute for Brain Science, in October 2010 with the idea of a production inspired by neuroscience.
"I was pretty impressed by how deep they were looking," Davenport said. "It was not just a superficial look at how the brain works."
In addition to talking with neuroscientists, the company conducted patient interviews over two years at the Crotched Mountain hospital and rehabilitation center for people with brain injuries in New Hampshire.
The company also hosted a series of monthly Brain Cafes, in which a scientist studying a particular brain disorder and an individual suffering from that disorder would share their experience with community members. Audience reactions and group discussion gave the company ideas to incorporate into the show, Aaron Jungels said.
While bringing art and science together definitely represents the meshing of perspectives, this integration is not without challenges.
"Finding the scientists who have the interest in art is the trick," Aaron Jungels said. "You have to find someone who is open-minded enough to go beyond their normal."
Bringing the brain to stage
Once the company collaborated with scientists, it was time to bring the brain into the spotlight.
"It was easy to get overwhelmed by the complexity of the brain, and all the directions we could go with this piece," Aaron Jungels said.
"You hunt for images," Dorothy Jungels said. "How do we depict? What symbols do we use?"
The company joined forces with filmmaker Laura Colella GS to add a digital media dimension to the performance. "There was a desire to use film to create an out-of body experience," which is a common symptom of brain trauma, Dorothy Jungels said.
Dorothy Jungels also used imagery and movement to explore brain mapping.
"We hear so many stories of doctors mapping the brain, and the brain being like streets to some doctors," she said.
She ultimately decided to communicate this concept through the projection of an image of 42nd Street du
ring part of the performance.
Representing memory was an additional challenge. "We'd be thinking, 'How do you depict memory? How do you depict memory?'" she said.
The company finally settled on scaffolding to represent the compartmentalization of memory. "The scaffolding becomes a little stage - a memory storehouse," she said.
Audience members at the dress rehearsal of BRAIN STORM were glued to their seats, yet their brains mirrored the performance. As they watched the dancers' movements, the complimentary areas of their brains were activated, Davenport said.
Video clips of the Crotched Mountain patients were projected onto the performers' faces. The show honed in on brain physiology, but humanized the neuroscience through the interviews and memories of the actual dancers.
The show ended with a chaotic scene in which the company propelled themselves across the stage via scaffolding.
BRAIN STORM was well-received by the curious audience, who fired questions at the company at the end of the show.
BRAIN STORM offered an "interesting view into the human psyche," said Zachary Hall, a community member who attended the show.
Chris Stewart, a plumber who was doing work at a nearby shop, commented on the show's "sense of fun, the speed, the precision."
"I liked the juggling in the show," Stewart said. "It added a sense of traditional showmanship, but the rest of the piece felt so avant-garde," he said.
During the question-and-answer session, the company commented on the fluid nature of the show's development.
"We're usually not done until the day of the show," said Rachel Jungels, creator and performer.
A neural connection
BRAIN STORM represents a unique project in which the traditionally separated fields of science and art coalesce.
"Brain science can be intimidating because people think it's so complex and hard to understand," Davenport said. "Art has a big role to play in humanizing the subject ... bringing the human story together with the scientific concepts."
Aaron Jungels is equally enthusiastic about the overlap of science and art. "I just get juiced by science," he said.
Davenport said he hopes the "fantastic opportunity" of collaboration between artists and scientists continues to be fostered at the University and beyond.
"It can be very easy for scientists to be caught up in the lingo of your field," Davenport said. "Having someone come in from the outside from an artistic background and ask questions - really dig in on a big picture level - has tremendous value."