Explaining Einstein Through Dance

The arts and sciences are combined, instead of in competition, to celebrate 100 years of Einstein’s general theory of relativity for “A Shout Across Time’’ April 24 and 25.

There’s an orchestra on the sidelines, waiting quietly. The dancers on stage don’t need any music. They’re dancing to a speech about physics.

Tamika Tannis glides across the stage of Cambridge’s First Church barefoot. One minute she is rounding her arms and curving her spine, like she’s holding a big beach ball. Next, she jerks her head around and pirouettes, skipping across the floor and landing with her legs sprawled beneath her.

She stands in a line with the other dancers, making a circle with her arms—one part of a gradient of sizes that forms a human telescope. She spirals out from the center of the stage, elegantly lifting onto her toes. A planet in orbit.

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Tannis is an MIT alumna and has been dancing her whole life. She didn’t feel pressure to pick one discipline over the other.

“With sciences and the arts, people want to place them as polar opposites,’’ Tannis says. “But they each require creativity and innovation. The end result of course is different, but it’s the core. The core—for me, the passion—is the same.’’

David Kaiser, an MIT professor, is trying to combine art and science for the same end goal in his Celebrating Einstein event during the Cambridge Science Festival. The event, called “A Shout Across Time’’ is at First Church in Cambridge April 24 and 25 at 7:30 p.m.

“The first reaction when I say we’re going to have dancers to embody the theory of relativity, some of my colleagues raise an eyebrow,’’ said Kaiser. “But it’s all about objects moving through space and time. What could be more natural than bodies in a dance for that?’’

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, and Kaiser organized a three-part event to end the Cambridge Science Festival, and honor the theory, with a bang.

“In the past 100 years, it’s been the vantage point for how we think about the big bang, and the universe as a whole,’’ Kaiser said. “It’s really quite beautiful and successful, so it seems like it’s worth a big birthday party.’’

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A Shout Across Time’’ starts with a dance choreographed by Tarikh Campbell and Adlai Grayson—both dance instructors and MIT alumni—to a live narration by WBUR’s Carey Goldberg. That’s just part one. There’s also an on-stage interview between two physicists and an orchestra’s original composition to a short film.

“I think part of the theme that our local organization has adopted is to try to demystify Einstein,’’ said Kaiser. “Relativity, for a long time, has been described as only something for a small number of experts—just leave them to their crazy hard math. But instead, with all kinds of artistic imagining, everyone can be involved.’’

Throughout the performance, Goldberg explains how relativity affects our daily lives. Through relativity, we’ve learned that clocks run differently depending on how close they are to a large mass like the Earth.

If we didn’t know that the clocks on satellites run at a different speed all the way out in space, then GPS would be useless. Our phone’s navigation would be off by kilometers per day rather than as close as meters per second.

“I’ve become fond of saying that relativity literally helps us find our place in the world,’’ Kaiser said.

As Goldberg talks about gravity and the bendable fabric of spacetime, Tannis bends her body to the words. She lays face down on the stage to mimic a gravitational wave. She slips into classic ballet moves, moving in a desperate flurry when Goldberg talks about how the arts and sciences are linked:

We do what we do because we are compelled to. We do what we do because we are explorers. We do what we do because our inherent and insatiable spirit of discovery drives us. It is this same spirit that drives innovation, which later drives industry and economy. And this is where science and art meet. It is in our desire to explore, our desire to create, our desire to communicate, our desire to move. And who said that we couldn’t explain science with dance?

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Campbell and Grayson got involved with this event through Joe Diaz, an event coordinator and fellow MIT alumnus. Diaz knew that they run dance companies in the community and that he could trust them with this challenge.

“We’re used to dancing to music and shorter things, but being MIT alums, we’re very intellectually curious and wanted to take a stab at it,’’ Campbell said. “Part of the mission is to make science more relatable to people, and we really wanted to do that.’’

But it’s not a one-way street. To Campbell, combining the two highlights the importance of art as well.

“A lot of times we get focused on the knowledge of science—the technical capabilities and how it improves lives—and that’s great. And then we say, what does art do for people? It doesn’t really confer real physical effects to society,’’ he said. “But I think art can be really moving. It can motivate people, improve lives, make people happier, and that’s important. When you combine the two, you get this mutual respect for each other. You can use art to convey science, and science has many artistic properties as well.’’

Tannis has danced with both Campbell and Grayson before, and was excited to combine her passions. She’s seen connections between the two topics before.

“As a software developer, when I have to create a program to do a certain thing, there is no set piece I already have,’’ Tannis said. “There’s no set code that’s detailed—I have to figure out how to do it. I have to figure out how to connect the pieces to get the end result that I want. It’s the same with dance.’’

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