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Dance Engaging Science workgroup. Photo by Jennifer Schäfer.

I have been fortunate enough in the past year to meet with an eclectic group of academics with each a vested interest in dance. The Forsythe Company has given rise to a four-year project called Motion Bank, which serves as a broad context for researching choreographic practice and creating a platform for digital scoring of dances. Along with partnerships from The Berlin School of Mind and Brain at Humboldt University and The Max Planck Institute of Brain Research Frankfurt, as well as financial support from the Volkswagen Foundation, a select group of experts have been gathered together in Frankfurt to discuss the current and potential relationship of dance with science. This small workgroup, aptly named Dance Engaging Science, includes several cognitive neuroscientists, an architect, an anthropologist, a philosopher, a professor of theater studies, a dramaturge, dancers and choreographers. As a member of The Forsythe Company I have had the opportunity to attend these meetings, and I have to say that my entire life has changed by doing so.

Each person in the group brings to the room something very specific and beautiful from their understanding of dance. For example, the methodical way in which Patrick Haggard, professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College of London, sees and understands dance is experientially very different from the way that I do. If you then combine Patrick with someone like James Leach, an anthropologist at University of Aberdeen, you begin to understand the potential of utilizing Patrick’s skill of curiosity and pragmatic focus with Leach’s talent for understanding cultural structure and linguistic eloquence. Michael Steinbusch, an architect from Dresden, gives a whole new light to embodying architecture at its most subtle and astonishing levels. The biography of each person is fascinatingly indicative of the way in which they process and research dance information; in each biography the perception of the word ”dance” has been defined by a lifetime of experience. I am now starting to see built the foundations of intellectual development that can only form when one brilliant mind meets another, and I am struck by the idea that this potential has come about simply from being gathered into one room.

Until this point I had never had the opportunity to engage professionally with such a high caliber of academics, and what I am discovering about my own practice is becoming more vivid with each conversation.

It is interesting to me how something decidedly ephemeral like performative dance can be engaged in the quantitative and in some ways concrete level of neuroscience. From the mind of a dancer it could seem, for lack of a better term, kinesthetically illogical to want to put the almost spiritual experience of dancing into an academic publication; and yet what I am coming to realize is that the purpose of this scientific research is not to find the limits to the dancer’s experience, but rather to constantly expand the perception of it. I strongly feel that any proposed danger of demystifying the practice of art through science is an erroneous assumption from an uneducated (or perhaps simply uninterested) point of view. With each ”fact” I learn about the brain and its elegant connectivity, I become aware of the multitude of possibilities that stem from each node of knowledge. In this case, it is simple to make connections from one area of expertise to the other because of one very fundamental fact: everything is connected. It is an extremely simple idea that I am only now beginning to scratch the surface of understanding. In dancer terms, let’s say I am starting to ”feel” it. This idea is a truly a sublime feeling.

For more information, you can check out Motion Bank’s website at www.motionbank.org. If you are interested in seeing the beginning of collaborative research I am starting with Dr. Emily Cross, lecturer of Cognitive Psychology at Bangor University in Wales, you can check it out on Youtube.

As well as a feature story on our research done by the BBC, at

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-17143546

Written by Riley Watts

Riley Watts is from Glenburn, Maine and started with competitive gymnastics before entering a life of dance. He started his dance training at the Thomas School of Dance, graduated high school from the Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Natick, Massachusetts, and finally earned a BFA in Dance from the Juilliard School where he was awarded a Princess Grace Scholarship in 2006. Upon graduation he danced professionally with the Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, Bern Ballet, Netherlands Dance Theater 2, and most recently The Forsythe Company in Frankfurt, Germany, where he currently resides. He has taught improvisation master classes based on Forsythe techniques in London, Frankfurt, Wales, and Boston, and plans to continue developing himself as a teacher in the future. Most recently he has been a part of Motion Bank, a project of The Forsythe Company, which with partial funding from the Volkswagen Foundation has organized a workgroup of cognitive and neuroscientists, architects, philosophers, anthropologists, choreographers and dancers to bring together their expertise and discuss the current and future collaborative potential between Dance and Science (www.motionbank.org). He is currently involved in research with Dr. Emily S. Cross, a cognitive psychologist at the Bangor University in Wales, to study the brain of a dancer and as well as the brain of someone viewing dance. He looks forward to contributing to DIYdancer and thinks life is generally quite awesome.