The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2023

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FEB 2023 Issue

The Slowest Wave – Dancing for Data

In a new collaboration between neuroscientists and butoh artists, dance exists both for human audiences and for computational study.

Vangeline wearing a MUSE 2 Brain-Sensing Headband. Photo: Tal Shpantzer.
Vangeline wearing a MUSE 2 Brain-Sensing Headband. Photo: Tal Shpantzer.
Gibney Dance
The Slowest Wave
January 26, 2023
New York

A striking collaboration between neuroscientists and contemporary butoh dancers culminated in a moving assemblage—Japanese dance, EEG technology, databases, light, pregnancy, science writing, and emergency alarms remixed with house beats. Vangeline’s The Slowest Wave is a hybrid work featuring choreography inspired not only by deep psychological sensuousness but also material, electromagnetic properties of the body.

Vangeline and her dance troupe move with the rhythm of the slowest neurophysiological waves—the slowest waves—waves only recorded during specific stages of sleep. The piece opens with each dancer at rest in a fetal-like pose, emanating tranquility.

Or one is tricked to see the dancers at rest. Slowly the dancers lift an elbow. And after some time, they lift that elbow barely higher. And after some more time, after your eye wanders around the stage, you might notice an elbow raised even a tiny bit higher—a palm beginning to hover off the ground. A finger begins to rise. One by one, the rest of the hand follows it. Before the pace picks up, the audience must wait for what can only feel like an eternity until the dancers have finally lifted a finger.

The Slowest Wave is a creative exercise in butoh, where movement is as still as it can ever possibly be. And once a wave flows through each dancer’s elbow, then through their palm, it slowly creeps through every muscle and metatarsal, dragging up a heavy arm into a wide curve.

<em>The Slowest Wave</em>, Vangeline Theater/New York Butoh Institute, 2023. Photo: Tal Shpantzer.
The Slowest Wave, Vangeline Theater/New York Butoh Institute, 2023. Photo: Tal Shpantzer.

The brilliance of The Slowest Wave, and the crux of its interdisciplinary origin, is that the dancer’s brain waves are read not only by a human audience. We learn through the neuroscientists’ verbal introduction that recorded EEG waves will be read into a computer to process neurophysiological oscillations for their research. Choreographic aims become as important as scientific ones.

The research component of The Slowest Wave is led by Sadye Paez, Constantina Theofanopoulou, and Jose ‘Pepe’ Contreras-Vidal. After acquiring EEG recordings of each dancer performing, these researchers run them against statistical analyzers to identify patterns in the dancers’ neural activity to understand the biomechanics of butoh and even investigate ambitious questions like, “Why do humans dance?”. The study’s findings will likely be applicable to other forms of contemporary dance, but the butoh artist and neuroscientists make for oddly complementary dance partners.

Why is butoh so perfect for a neuroscience of dance? The constraints of EEG technology place limitations on what movements are available to a choreographer. Traveling large distances, high jumps, and anything allegro would interfere with an EEG recording, compromising data quality and rendering it useless for analysis. Vangeline’s slow butoh movements are designed for data capture as they feature an array of core butoh vocabulary and are minimal enough to fit within the physical constraints demanded by sensitive lab equipment.

While the interdisciplinary nature of The Slowest Wave is rather novel and possibly groundbreaking, biology and choreography at times fail to mutually contribute to one another. The best moments of collaboration occur when scientific pursuit, in a sense, choreographs the movement by imposing its own constraints and requirements. However, the worst, uncollaborative moments might cause an audience member to feel that the research is attempting to over-explain the beauty of dance, while dance is fully capable of speaking for itself. When there is a failure for dance to shape science and science to shape dance, the collaboration becomes less like a unified ensemble and more like two soloists accidentally dancing on the same stage at the same time. Bold questions on why people dance may understandably inspire scientific thought, but the answer to those questions need not be limited to science. The answer to critical questions about human nature and dance can easily be found within the artistry of The Slowest Wave.


Dillon Heyck

Dillon Heyck is a coder and writer based in New York City.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2023

All Issues