Professor Keith Earle
Department of Physics

For an entire semester, Professor Keith Earle of the UAlbany Physics Department and choreographer Ellen Sinopoli focused on a communion of the arts and sciences studying side by side the principles of physics and modern dance. Equal parts lecture, demonstration, performance and discussion, this program, which was viewed by over 1000 high school students in the last two seasons, is a result of their efforts and includes Texture of the Whole, a choreographic work for the Ellen Sinopoli Dance Company that they collaborated to create and which utilizes more than a dozen laws of physics deeply intertwining the science with the dance.

This collaboration grew out of an observation and a question. The way the scientific method is usually presented, it’s the other way round, that is, a scientist formulates a question, or hypothesis, designs an experiment and makes observations to confirm or refute the hypothesis. In my own experience, I’ll often make an observation, ask myself, “What the heck is that all about,” and then try to come up with an explanation. It’s not as tidy as the sanitized version of how science is done that’s presented to the public, but it’s often how it works for me.

I first saw the Ellen Sinopoli Dance Company in a performance of their piece ‘Spill Out’. That, if you like, was the ‘observation’. At the time, I was grappling with a teaching problem: “How can I make the concepts of electric and magnetic fields more understandable to my students?” That was the ‘question’. I had known of various attempts to represent physics concepts by artistic means, but those efforts were mostly static images. What was missing was a dynamic element.

I want to thank you for organizing this very interesting event, which has become an unofficial Annual Open House for our department. Open houses like this (although without the most important ingredient - the Choreophysics presentation) made large impacts on me as a high school student, and I am very happy that we now have a similar tradition at UAlbany. Thanks again for your work on increasing the visibility of our department and our university.
Oleg Lunin - Boys & UAlbany Physics Department

What ‘Spill Out’ suggested to me was that dance could address the ‘dynamic’ piece that I felt had been missing until now in collaborations that explored the intersection of the arts and sciences. That was the germ. I reached out to Kim Engel who is a colleague on the University at Albany campus, who was willing to hear me out on this half-formed idea. She told me about an upcoming dance concert in Troy, and suggested that I meet Ellen Sinopoli after the concert. During the concert, it dawned on me that the movements of the dancers, especially en corps, represented in a tangible way many of the features of vector fields such as electric and magnetic fields that I was trying to convey to my students.

I introduced myself to Ellen Sinopoli after the concert and we both agreed that the concept was worthy of further exploration. And there it sat for a number of years before we could assemble the resources to further explore the idea. The key missing resources were time and money. This semester, I’m on sabbatical and can devote more thought and effort to a collaborative project, as I don’t have teaching responsibilities. Kim Engel was able to successfully shake the money trees, as well as to arrange for the Ellen Sinopoli Dance Company to be in residence on the University at Albany campus, so with all those pieces in place, the stars aligned this semester.

I’ve never worked with a choreographer before to create something new, but I have had extensive experience in performance as a singer. That has helped, because I am familiar with the rehearsal process and have some sense of what’s required to make a compelling performance. I think my performance background has also informed my teaching as well.

I’ve enjoyed working with Ellen and the dancers to develop this piece. It’s more than me just doling out sips from the fire hose of knowledge. Sometimes, I’ve presented a concept to Ellen and the dancers that they have subsequently developed. Sometimes, I’ve been presented with a dance phrase that represents the dancers’ understanding of a concept which I’ve commented on.  

It’s been intriguing to me how aesthetics has played an important role in this process, both on the dance side and the science side. I’m looking for a scientifically coherent presentation of a concept, and Ellen is looking for an artistically compelling expression of an idea through movement. The process has been fairly friction-free, and on my side at least, I haven’t had to scratch anything that I felt didn’t ‘add up’.

With that said, there are a number of phrases and ideas that ended up ‘on the cutting room floor’, but that’s the nature of artistic collaboration. You have to know when to let go and when to keep playing with an idea.
Press release from the original collaboration in Spring 2014

Performance and Rehearsal Photos

All photos by Gary Gold

Collaborators Ellen Sinopoli and Keith Earle
Ellen Sinopoli Dance Company members visually represent an echo in Choreography
Ellen Sinopoli Dance Company members visually represent substrate binding
Dancers and students surround Professor Earle as they work together to demonstrate concept
Dancers get students involved in the ChoreoPhysics demonstrations
dancers rehearse as collaborators Keith Earle and Ellen Sinopoli observe
dancers rehearse as collaborators Ellen Sinopoli and Keith Earle observe
Physicist Keith Earle and Choreographer Ellen Sinopoli
Keith Earle explains a physics concept for the dancers in rehearsal
ChoreoPhysics performance April 2013
ChoreoPhysics performance
Choreographer Ellen Sinopoli and Physicist Keith Earle in the studio

Feedback from December 2016 performance:

Thank you for a wonderful experience as my first adventure taking so many students on a field trip. The ticket price was very fair, and I had learned about the program well in advance, during the summer when a brief workshop was featured at a NYS Master Teacher event. We enjoyed the program very much. The students were excited to see and hear words like quantum, excited state, equilibrium, wave, and Newton's laws used in ways that were both more concrete and more abstract! The audience participation portion of the program was particularly engaging for them as the volunteers got to actively experience the concept of unbalanced forces vs. balancing of forces to achieve equilibrium. The follow-up presentation by Professor Ariel Caticha of the Physics Department earned positive comments from my highest level students who were inspired to think more about what aspect of STEM they might pursue.

I decided to bring my students for two reasons: 1) I am an advocate and a practitioner of using student bodies and movements to promote engagement and understanding of physical processes, including phase changes, chemical reactions and periodic trends, among others. 2) I feel it is important for high needs high school students to have more exposure to the world of higher education so that they can picture themselves there. We have this wonderful university practically in our backyard, but few have had the opportunity to visit. It also gives our students a low stakes opportunity to practice the positive behaviors expected as their adolescent years yield to the increased self-discipline and responsibilities required of young adults.

Thank you, the professors and performers, and our wonderful guide, Pat, who kept us out of the arctic chill all day as the students got to discover the system of underground tunnels used to do just that. Additional thanks to the docents at the library and all others who made this a tremendous experience for our group.

Victoria Eddy-Helenek
Chemistry Teacher
Watervliet Jr/Sr High School
New York State Master Teacher

The best experiences I have had in my own dance life were the ones that incorporated the real science of physics into the teaching and learning process so I was elated and eager to get the invitation to this program. My students were captivated. They were visibly peaked every time a concept was mentioned and demonstrated. Upon return to class the next day, their reflections were very spot on to what they had experienced. They were quite articulate in describing what they learned. Here’s a few of their comments:

Diane Guida
Dance Teacher
Briarcliff Middle and High School

I just wanted to send a quick note of thanks to you and all the folks who worked so hard to put together the Choreophysics program last week. We were all so impressed! One of the foundations of Waldorf pedagogy is the blending of artistic, academic and kinesthetic learning in all subjects. Their academic work incorporates artistic expression and hands-on learning throughout grades 1-12, and it was just amazing to see that same philosophy applied at the university level on Thursday. The program was planned so well - the pacing of the lecture/demonstration, the hands-on workshop, the quiet spot for lunch and small group conversation with professors - it all just flowed. I'm so glad we were able to be there. Please share our thanks with the entire team - it was a fantastic day!

Heather Crocker
Waldorf School of Saratoga

It was during the 2014-15 academic year that they took the material from the initial collaboration and crafted it into a program specifically designed for high schools. The PAC has presented that program every year since. The Daily Gazette released an article about the most recent performance, in December 2016.


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