Dancers Oscillate with Rhythms Borrowed from Physics

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Dancers Oscillate with Rhythms Borrowed from Physics

A dancer and a physicist collaborate on a performance piece with quantum inspirations


Sam Mitchell Theatre and Dance PhD Student, University of California, San Diego/University of California, Irvine edited by Ray Simmonds, Physicist, National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, CO

“But science and art meet on this ground, that both make men’s life easier, the one setting out to maintain, the other to entertain us. In the age to come art will create entertainment from that new productivity which can so greatly improve our maintenance, and in itself, if only it is left unshackled, may prove to be the greatest pleasure of them all.”
—Bertolt Brecht

Dunamis Novem from sam mitchell on Vimeo.

Our collaboration began on a chilly November morning in 2012. Physicist Raymond Simmonds and myself, a dancer/choreographer, sat on our surfboards at Scripps Pier in San Diego, waiting for the next set of waves. As we looked out to the horizon, we began to discuss physics and dance. When our wave came in, we turned our boards around and paddled to catch it. Then we met back in the “lineup” and continued where our conversation had left off. 

Sam Mitchell’s “Dunamis Novem” copyright Jim Carmody 2015

Simmonds, who is an experimental physicist working with superconducting quantum circuits at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, talked about quantum physics, randomness, algorithms, and Brian Eno’s self-generative music. I was then a first-year MFA student at the University of California, San Diego. I shared the history of postmodern dance artists and composers who explored new artistic territories in the 1960s. I also spoke about contemporary artists I admired and how, in my opinion, the use of technology added to the complexities of their work.

Inspired, I pitched the idea of a collaboration that would integrate quantum physics and dance to Simmonds. He responded enthusiastically, and “Dunamis Novem” was born.

We arrived at the title after a discussion about Aristotle, who distinguished two meanings of the Greek word “dunamis.” It could describe an object’s power to produce a change or its potential to be in a different state, something that “might chance to happen or not to happen.”

“Novem” is the Latin word for nine. So, in essence, we chose the title “Nine Chance Happenings.”

Sam Mitchell’s “Dunamis Novem” copyright Jim Carmody 2015

As we wrote up our preliminary proposal for the La Jolla Playhouse Theater, Ray began explaining physics and quantum concepts to me: determinism versus indeterminism, energy eigenstates, nature’s inherent randomness, and Einstein’s assertion that “God does not play dice.”

With these conversations in mind, I began to develop dance phrases based on the quantized states of a harmonic oscillator—with each level successively getting more energized, from a low state of energy to a higher state. As I improvised in the studio, the temptation to “show” these quantum concepts as I was beginning to understand them was too great.

To destabilize a literal or narrative translation, I played a game called Oblique Strategies with a deck of cards developed by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt.

As described by Eno, the cards “can be used as a pack (a set of possibilities being continuously reviewed in the mind) or by drawing a single card from the shuffled pack when a dilemma occurs in a working situation. In this case, the card is trusted even if its appropriateness is quite unclear. They are not final, as new ideas will present themselves, and others will become self-evident.”

The first card I drew from the deck said “Question the heroic approach.” The cards gave me the advantage of an outside perspective and creative latitude. I enjoyed the playful quality they brought into the creative process. It was like having another director in the room who remained objective.

Sam Mitchell’s “Dunamis Novem” copyright Jim Carmody 2015

Ultimately, nine dance phrases were taught to four dancers. As a way of keeping things light, I jokingly referred to the first phrase as “Crumble the Cookie,” the second as “Hug the World,” and so on, creating a name for each phrase. It was important for us to laugh and have a good time in the studio. Just because we were working within the realm of abstract concepts did not mean we had to lose our sense of humor.

Instead of memorizing a full choreographed sequence of phrases—nearly impossible—we tried an unusual rehearsal method. We wanted to integrate some of the probabilistic rules that govern quantum systems into our creative process for dance choreography.

 Simmonds designed a series of slides using MATLAB. He generated random sequences of the phrases following the Boltzmann (thermal state) and Poisson (coherent state) distributions to simulate some quantum behavior. A teleprompter fed with Simmonds’ distributions showed each dancer’s name along with the name of the random phrase she was to dance and the number of counts left in that phrase. Each slide was automatically timed to last one second, thus creating the tempo for the material.

Some of the dancers believed that this way of working was in conflict with their notions of how choreography should be learned and rehearsed. I expressed my understanding but also challenged their notions of traditional approaches. “Ray and I are trying new methods,” I stated. “We are under certain time constraints that don’t allow for us to use rote memorization, traditional counts, or breath cues.”

The need for narrative or representation was eradicated by placing attention to the organization and articulation of a systematic approach. This resulted in an original dance theater piece, first performed in January 2015, that straddled the worlds of liminality and structure. Our results spawned from an artistic aesthetic and an algorithmic code that produced dynamics trying to embody randomness, concepts of “quantum entanglement,” and the effects of observation or “measurement.”

Though we live more than a thousand miles apart, Simmonds and I are continuing to investigate next steps for the development of “Dunamis Novem.” We feel that there is much more uncharted territory to be explored in this collaboration between the worlds of art and science.

Sam Mitchell’s “Dunamis Novem” copyright Jim Carmody 2015

Watch the video and read more about Sam Mitchell’s “Dunamis Novem” at and see more images at

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