Gravity Games

Students lose their balance–and dance.

May 1, 2005

During the independent Activities Period (IAP) in January, MIT’s Kinaesthetics Lab was issued a four-day mechanical-engineering challenge. It wasn’t to design a solar-powered car or a remote-controlled robot, however, but to build a swaying dance platform. The Kinaesthetics Lab, you see, is a student choreography group. The challenge came as Paula Josa-Jones, a Boston-based choreographer, and Ellen Sebring, SM ‘86, a research associate in MIT’s Visualizing Cultures project, worked with the students to choreograph a dance based on the concepts of “altered” gravity and lost balance.

Josa-Jones began to conceive the project in the early spring of 2001. She asked Sebring to join her in filming two dancers walking along the sea wall near her Martha’s Vineyard home. The camera circled around the dancers, creating the illusion that the ground itself was swaying. Following the events of September 11, 2001, their work seemed well timed to reflect the internal turbulence that the nation was experiencing. The film was later shown at the 2004 Dance on Camera Festival in New York City.

During IAP, Josa-Jones and Sebring wanted to take their project a step further and literally make dancers lose their balance. The artists and the Kinaesthetics Lab students explored the mechanical aspects of balance as well as the artistic challenges of blending video with live dance. Their work culminated in a performance on January 22.

At the performance, two women danced on the platform, which was rocked by the Kinaesthetics students, as Sebring and Josa-Jones’s video played behind them. The dancers’ movements were dreamlike as they swayed with and against the gyrations of the platform. Only their tense ankle muscles and hasty foot placement revealed how difficult it was for them to maintain their balance.

Sebring says she was pleased with the performance, and particularly with the “beauty in the ‘Atlas’ role of the [platform] movers, wonderfully performed by the MIT students, who shifted the mechanism and thereby the dancers’ world.” Their success has made the workshop a launching point for further projects, Sebring says. She imagines “using a broader swatch of stage” in the future, “for example, creating a sense of walking through air.”