Last year, the IAS turned fifteen. In that time, the Institute has incubated several projects that have gone on to flourish and grow larger than anyone might have expected at the outset. This series showcases where those projects began, where they are now, and how they got there.
This is the story of how two University of Minnesota faculty in two totally different fields may have never met if not for the IAS. Carl Flink is a professor of dance, is currently the director of the Dance Program in the College of Liberal Arts, and is the artistic director of Black Label Movement. David Odde is a professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering in the College of Science and Engineering, and is the PI of the Odde Lab, which studies cell migration and division in brain cancer progression.
In 2008, David and Carl met at the old IAS University Symposium. This chance meeting led to a collaboration that has completely transformed both David’s and Carl’s work.
Together, they formed “The Choreography of the Moving Cell,” which was funded as an IAS Research and Creative Collaborative from fall 2009 to spring 2014, and has continued since. Through this work, they established a technique they describe as “bodystorming”—essentially brainstorming with bodies—that utilizes elements of dance to rapid prototype and model research hypotheses in biomedical engineering. Bodystorming has since expanded globally and has taken on many uses. For engineers like David, the practice drives forward science by offering new forms of rapid prototype modeling. For dancers and choreographers like Carl, the practice opens up new forms of dance informed by science.
We interviewed David and Carl earlier this spring to ask more about how their collaboration started, evolved over time, and where it is now.
Q: How did your collaboration begin?
Carl Flink: It all started with Ann Waltner [who was the director of the IAS at the time] introducing us. It was literally a matchmaking moment. I felt like we were at some speed dating event with Ann introducing us to people, and she said here’s the guy dealing with catastrophe in his dancemaking and there’s a guy whose cancer research experiments with catastrophe. Obviously, they should meet.
David Odde: I wound up going to Carl’s dress rehearsal for Wreck, an evening length dance piece Black Label Movement was doing for the IAS University Symposium—the theme that year was “Time”—and we hit it off. We started talking about whether it might be possible to use dance to convey scientific ideas. Carl challenged me to take that idea beyond just educating people and wondered if this approach could actually be used for research. The more I thought about it, the more I realized he had a point: if you ask two scientists to choreograph exactly the same thing, those two dances would not be identical. That tells you something different is going on in each scientist’s mind, even when we’re talking about the same thing—or at least we think we are. So, through dance, we came to have a new way of articulating our own unique ways of seeing problems and to compare it to someone else’s unique way of seeing things. We were also able to look for commonalities and differences, and that allowed us to actually move the research forward. When we have complex phenomena and are working with a hypothesis, the improvisation of dance helps improve our intuitive understanding of what’s going on. It doesn’t replace computer simulations, but it’s become an important compliment to them.
Q: What is the Moving Cell project and bodystorming?
CF: There’s the Moving Cell project, and that’s our specific collaboration, which we formed in 2009. The bodystorming system is a separate technique that’s come from it, an outcome, that we use for modeling but which we can also share with others for their own research.
I was really intrigued when David talked about what he sees happening in a cell. He described it as an extremely violent space inside the cell. Talking with David, I came to see the interior of the human body could be a very chaotic environment which surprised and intrigued me as a movement researcher. I realized that Black Label’s athletic, at times aggressive, approach to movement could be used effectively to capture the way David saw the interior of the cell.
DO: Scientists are often disembodied from their work. Research is seen as a purely intellectual pursuit where you sit quietly at a desk, chalkboard, whiteboard or a computer terminal and do your work without significantly engaging your body. But when people talk and share, they use gesture and body movement to illustrate what they’re talking about. It’s a natural thing—people like to dance.
For some reason in science, particularly in the Euro-American context, we’ve disconnected the body and mind. What’s great about working with Carl is he’s opening the door to facilitate that reconnection in scientific research and between scientists and artists. Once people see it and walk through it, they’re opening up an aspect of themselves that has gone dormant but is ready to come forward again. Bringing physical motion into scientific research is at the heart of bodystorming.
Q: Tell us about your partnership and how you’ve sustained such a long and fruitful collaboration.
DO: A key thing that happened, which I think is important for long-term collaborations like these, is clear mission overlap and reciprocity. Each participant needs to see potential value and worthwhile goals for their own research and that those goals and work are mutually respected. We’ve embraced and learned about each other’s research agendas and worked to communicate to others we engage the importance of valuing our different fields.
CF: What I learned very quickly from David is that he speaks with his body. That gave me an immense amount of information and belief that we could communicate and work together. It was very easy to understand his research because he communicates with his entire being, just like a dance artist. The fact that David engages his body so readily provided an easy intersection point for us to start and grow this collaboration.
Scientific research can and perhaps should be an embodied experience as much as it is intellectual. When you work with David this is a reality. When David shares his science, he communicates with words and movement that gives different learners ways to access the information he is sharing. This is definitely somewhat rare in my experience with scientists.
Another important aspect of our collaboration is that we are both comfortable and game beginners and learners. David isn’t a trained dancer, although he was a strong athlete in high school, but he is a willing and capable mover. I don’t have any background as a scientific researcher, but I have always enjoyed science and engaging it. We’ve realized that this openness to learning and patience with teaching is critical to a healthy and productive collaboration.
Q: How did the IAS help?
DO: The IAS gave us safe space to play with the unusual idea of a dancer and scientist collaborating. At first, many folks thought it was simply an oddity that couldn’t possibly lead to serious research.
A lot of activity in academia causes you to get narrower and narrower and build silos—domains of knowledge that are disconnected from one other, but the IAS provides these portals that allowed us to walk through and connect with each other.
CF: To me, the thing that has continued to excite me about the IAS and the University’s commitment to it is the idea of creating locations for pure faculty research. It’s a place for faculty to let their imagination and research move and expand in unfettered ways without the immediate pressure of a standard outcome like a journal article. Because of this freedom and support to explore my relationship with David and the Moving Cell project it made a tectonic shift in my research, allowing improvisational structures learned from bodystorming to enter my formal choreography in dynamic ways. I now regularly collaborate with scientists, and before the IAS, that didn’t exist. The IAS ethos, community, and support allowed me to open an entirely new, and in many ways novel, vista in my embodied research.
Q: What’s happening with your collaboration now? What are your hopes for the future?
DO: The thing I’m excited about most is that we are now able to have resources in the center that I direct to support bodystorming activities, as well as engaging with cancer patients, their caregivers, and their clinical providers. When I was writing the budget, I originally wondered how people would see it [having dancers] since funding is always tight, but these activities are so important to our research and it’s extremely helpful to our work. What it’s led to is bringing new perspectives and people into my research space, namely cancer patients, their advocates, and their caregivers. Being able to bring the clinical/medical staff, patients, advocates, and researchers into the same research room is in many ways unprecedented and can help dissolve barriers. If we can bring such diverse communities together, we can change the shape of everything.
Scientists often feel isolated in their labs working by themselves for long hours on a problem that they may or may not ever see having impact on other people. Patients feel isolated, because the medical system looks like big machine, an unfriendly system. Movement and moving with others can help break through that isolation. If we can do that, I think bodystorming could be a template for breaking down other barriers that exist. We see such differences and division and polarization in our country and around the world. What if we could, through human movement, create space for each other and mutual respect to articulate what is that it is we have to say through movement. It could be transformative.
CF: In the last year, we’ve began working with Dr. Jon Hallberg, the new director for the University of Minnesota Center for the Art of Medicine at the Medical School in a variety of capacities. One of those collaborations resulted in the 2020 TEDx Talk “A Dream of Touch When Touch is Gone”. Jon brings very important perspective as both a researcher and practitioner that will inform this work in important ways.
DO: We’ve also talked about the possibility of convening a meeting or workshop that brings together people who are engaged in this kind of work from across the globe. We’ve worked with groups in India and Israel already, and other parts of the United States and Europe. Right now, we’ve been working in mostly isolated groups that are somewhat aware of each other, but we’d love to see what would happen if this became more of a global community, a network. That would be very cool.
Q: What have you learned/gained through your unlikely partnership?
CF: That an unusual and risk-taking relationship between unexpected partners creates the opportunity to truly change and evolve the thinking of everyone involved in substantial and exciting ways.
DO: One of the things that I learned from working with Carl was how quickly you can get a model started. Computer simulation and debugging is typically very slow, whereas you can quickly choreograph models using human movement. This approach changed my way of thinking about the value of building models rapidly—and the idea that they actually don’t have to be perfect, they can be just pretty darn good—and how useful that can be.
Normally in science, we want to get to a 99% confidence level before we publish, and that’s fine for our normal academic work. It’s important that that work go through peer review. But what happens when a pandemic hits and it’s a new virus and we have no data and people are getting sick and dying right now? How do we ramp up to do those experiments with no money? How do you do that? I went ahead and ended up rapidly building a computational model for the SARS-COV-2 to life cycle.
I did this independent of working with Carl, but my mindset has shifted to understand that rapid prototyping is potentially valuable, even if imperfect because of the speed of creating it. It didn't have to be a perfect model of code, but maybe it would be good enough to allow initial predictions about which drugs for COVID are most likely to be effective and which ones are not as likely. So far, these rapid prototype models have been very predictive. The mindset shift that I got by working with Carl was to work quickly—not requiring perfect precision and high confidence as the bar to be useful. That got us on this track and, hopefully, will lead to an effective treatment soon for COVID.