Krannert Center performance combines art, science to examine what makes us human

“The Joy of Regathering” combines science, music and movement to explore humanity’s place in the universe and how we come together after a long separation. The performance is Sept. 17 at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Image by M Ospina-Lopez

By Jodi Heckel, Illinois News Bureau

An interdisciplinary performance combining science, music and movement will explore humanity’s place in the universe, ranging from the microscopic level to the expanse of the cosmos. The world premiere of “The Joy of Regathering” is Sept. 17 at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

The recurring theme of the piece is coming together after a long separation – represented in many ways, including in people coming together after the shutdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The performance was created by physics professor Smitha Vishveshwaratheatre professor Latrelle Brightmusic professor Stephen Andrew Taylordance professor Rebecca Nettl-Fiol and chemistry professor and former head of the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology Jeffrey Moore, with input from collaborators in various arts and sciences disciplines across campus.

Vishveshwara and Bright created “Quantum Voyages,” a 2018 performance piece explaining the basic concepts of quantum physics that debuted at physics professor and Nobel laureate Anthony Leggett’s 80th birthday celebration, and “Quantum Rhapsodies,” a more elaborate 2019 production performed at the Beckman Institute that explored revolutionary ideas in quantum physics and the role they play in technology and that included music performed by the Jupiter String Quartet.

“The Joy of Regathering” is a similar art-science confluence and an even more ambitious project, Vishveshwara and Bright said. The production uses the performing and visual arts to explore concepts of quantum physics, biochemistry, geology and astronomy. The Krannert Center performance is the first iteration of this new work.

“It’s a journey through time, from the microscopic to the human to the astronomical,” Vishveshwara said. “It explores regathering across all these terrains – within cells, communities and galaxies.”

The group held four workshops to develop the piece that included hearing from scientists from across campus. Geology professor Bruce Fouke talked about the organisms that live in the geothermal waters of Yellowstone National Park; chemistry professor Martin Gruebele explained how sound can help us understand biomolecular processes; biochemist Emad Tajkhorshid discussed cell membranes and coronavirus; and biophysics researcher Melih Sener explained photosynthesis. Astrophysicists Jeffrey FilippiniCharles GammieGilbert Holder and Helvi Witek helped the group understand the formation of planetary systems, galaxies and black holes.

The scientists were asked to talk about not only the basics of their research but also how it relates to our humanity. 

“The scientists are very poetic, actually, and very metaphoric,” Nettl-Fiol said.

One workshop was devoted to improvising on various musical instruments to create a soundscape for the production, and the fourth workshop, led by Bright, created an outline of how to present the concepts in a performance.

“We thought about the recurring patterns of coming together and being pulled apart and why that is” in creating the movement onstage, Bright said. A 12-person ensemble cast includes faculty members, students and community residents. At times, they move together as a group, then they disperse and come back together.

The performance features four movements, beginning with “We the Animals,” a look at humanity through its gathering, praying, sharing, dancing, fighting and laboring in nature and by machine.

It then moves backward in time to “Fragments of Life,” examining early biological life, including cells and how they are affected by coronavirus; photosynthesis; carbon; and sulfur bacteria, which depend on one another to survive in their extreme environments.

“Terra Forms” looks at geological features such as rocks and minerals, hot springs and volcanoes. “Journeying the Cosmos” examines astronomical phenomena – planetary formation, the life of a star, black holes and the formation of galaxies.

The Jupiter String Quartet will perform the music for the production, along with nine other musicians who will improvise during the performance. The quartet will perform a composition by Taylor that includes an intricate, frenzied passage based on the genetic sequence of a coronavirus protein. Taylor also uses sonifications from the LIGO gravitational wave project for the section on how black holes form and combine. Bangalore, India-based classical Indian singer Shanitkumar Jain will join the ensemble.

Nettl-Fiol created a 19-minute dance piece that is performed to the music Taylor wrote representing the coronavirus. The dancers also appear in the last movement to represent various celestial bodies, with six dancers representing the formation of planets circling a sun. The dancers explode away from one another as they become stars, forming two constellations. Two duets of dancers represent the death of stars before they swirl together again as they merge to form a black hole, Nettl-Fiol said.

Recorded narration sets the stage for each movement and explains the scientific concepts.

During a pre-show event, guests will be invited to share their reflections on the theme of “regathering” and see a documentary on the process of making the production. A post-show event will include conversation and music.