"The spirit of peace in which we came": Making a dance about space exploration for all fun and no profit / by Adeene Denton

Over the summer of 2019, I choreographed and performed a dance about space exploration as part of DEVICES 6, a showcase produced by Doug Varone and Dancers in New York City. This is a piece about the process that led me to that point, and what I hope to take from it going forward.

Here man completed his first explorations of the Moon, December 1972, A.D. May the spirit of peace in which we came be reflected in the lives of all mankind.
— Apollo 17 Lunar Plaque

Why am I Writing This?

I don’t write about dance. In fact, I actively avoid it. How do you use words to describe something that, by definition, has none? Whenever someone asks me to talk about my work as a choreographer I descend into a well-worn panic, since most of my attempts to convey the meanings I’ve built into my work feel like word jenga - the more words I add, the more likely I am to convey nothing at all. I may be a choreographer, but the moment I step out of the studio and into a meeting where I have to explain why dance matters in general, and why my choreography matters in particular, my answer is usually “ohgodohgodohgod I have to go,” which is neither descriptive nor a sustainable business model for someone looking to make more dance and establish a reputation as a “real dance person.”

This article looks to change that. I’m here to write about my experience as choreographer and as a scientist-artist, and how that has affected both the work I make and the opportunities I have to make it. Being in graduate school means working ungodly hours most days, with few windows of time to seek out opportunities for dance/choreography experience outside of the closest, most convenient options. Combine these logistical issues with my long-held hesitance to advertise myself as a dancer and choreographer, and I found myself in a place, prior to this summer, where I wasn’t sure what the way forward could be for me.

I have long avoided talking about my art, or myself as an artist, not necessarily for personal reasons (though impostor syndrome is undeniably a part of it) but to preserve credibility with my peers and mentors in graduate school as I focus on building a scientific career. In most parts of academia, there is no reward for pouring untold hours into a side hustle, let alone one that cannot be immediately monetized and/or funneled directly back towards your main research area. When I started grad school, I was told to pursue my interests in secret, since my first advisor had pushed numerous previous students to give up any hobbies they had. I accepted this, because I thought this was the price I had to pay for the PhD - hang up the rest of myself in a closet like a set of clothes I could put back on in five years, when I was allowed to be a person again. But for me at least, it didn’t work like that.

I kept dancing. I kept choreographing, even when I left so much of myself in the lab that when I stared into my dancer’s faces in rehearsal I worried I had no energy left to give them. I found mentors and mentors found me - everything I’ve accomplished in the last three years is because of people like Sydney Skybetter, an absolutely rad human who thought I had a voice worth listening to, and who kept reminding me that choreographers look like people that make dance. So I kept making dances; I quietly made dances in my small free hours, year after year, until I made my way into a New York show in summer 2019, with no money and no clue what kind of a dance I was going to make. What art do you make when you finally have a chance to tell the world you’re a real art person?

In the end, I made a dance about space. I’m surprised it took me this long.

This image is titled realdanceartistrehearsalphoto3.jpg

This image is titled realdanceartistrehearsalphoto3.jpg

Why make a dance about space?

Why make a dance about space exploration at all? Dance, in my opinion, “works best” (i.e., evokes reaction from the audience) when it hews itself closely to the human experience. Joy, pain, the complexity of interpersonal relationships - these make for compelling dances, because we (the audience) recognize a beautiful reenactment of our own existence as it lives and dies on the stage in front of us. But, space exploration - what does it mean? Who cares about it? As I worked interpretations of the Apollo missions into my dance, these questions were unavoidable. What would it take to make an audience invested in a dream of walking on the Moon, an experience that only twelve white men have ever had?

In my brainstorming sessions (read: lying facedown in the studio praying for inspiration) I immediately discarded the literal approach: miming out the history of Apollo 11, or any other historical event associated with it, wouldn’t “work” in the way I want a dance to work. I didn’t want to remind anyone that the Apollo program happened - most people know this. For me and the art I want to make, the only way to make a dance seem “real,” so real that an audience can recognize themselves in it, is to tell a story that I know. In a narrative made with human bodies and a stage (and only 12 minutes), I can’t express a grand history; I can only really tell you a story, usually mine.

In the case of the dance I made, there is a long and complex history of the U.S. space program, and then there is the shorter but no less complex story of how that history intersected with mine.

Space exploration is a huge part of my life. Technically, it’s part of my job as a grad student. But long before I became a professional nerd drowning in background reading, I was a kid floating in a pool pretending I was practicing in Johnson Space Center’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab. There are myths associated with space exploration, and the Apollo program in particular: stories that tell us that despite tragedy and strife, a group of talented, hardworking people can achieve the impossible; that science and technology can be a gateway to the incredible beauty of other worlds; that when we leave Earth we carry the best of humanity with us. As a kid growing up in Texas, where even the license plates had the Space Shuttle on them, they were myths I loved. Even today, with all the imperfections that come with delving deeper and deeper into the history behind Apollo as an adult, there is a part of me that believes there’s truth in those stories. It’s that part of me that still wants to be an astronaut.

In the end, I guess it comes down to this: I make dance because I have to say something. I keep making dances because there is so much that I have to say, and for me, no other way to say it. In making “Breaking the Roche Limit,” I realized that I was saying to my audience, “Listen to this dream I have, a dream that I’ve carried with me all my life. Let me tell you how I saw myself in a narrative that both was and wasn’t ever meant for me.” I didn’t make this dance as a scientist trying to educate people about the universe; I made this dance to explain, at least a little bit, why space exploration reminds me of everything good about humanity.

Nuts and Bolts: Behind the Scenes of Breaking the Roche Limit

Once I’d decided that I wanted to make a dance about space exploration in general, and the Apollo program in particular, I had to figure out what that would look like - what I, as the choreographer, could do make the dance “effective.” I knew from the beginning that this piece would be a solo, performed by me, which made things very difficult. However, when you’re making a dance with a budget of $0, choreographing a solo is the easiest way to go. Since I’ve developed a policy of only recruiting dancers if I can pay them equitably for their time, I will likely be limited for quite a while in this regard.

So the question then became - how can one body on a stage convey something as complex as the legacy of the Apollo Program? The methodology behind how I tried to do that falls into two interconnected categories:

  1. The translation of specific scientific ideas into movement. This is the movement framework that I developed as the basis for the piece, designed to (very) loosely reflect the formation of our Solar System. In the iteration of my experimentation with this concept that actually made its way into the piece, I built a movement phrase composed of these five physical processes, translated onto my body:

    1. The movement of gas and dust in the protosolar nebula

    2. Accretion of material to form planetesimals

    3. Impacts into those planetesimals/protoplanets

    4. Dispersion of impact ejecta

    5. Formation of smaller objects, i.e., the Moon

    Is this recognizable to the average audience member on first viewing? Almost certainly not. But for me, building a framework that was rooted in the science of the birth of the Solar System itself forced me to think about the relationship of the human body to the space we’re trying to explore. For me, these five physical processes are the building blocks of the Solar System, the Earth, and us; in building them physically into my piece I tied myself , in a really small way, to a process that began long before me and will continue long after.

    To put it another way: I am a huge nerd.

  2. The transmission of the specific feeling that I, the choreographer and dancer, feel when I consider human spaceflight. To me this is just as, if not more, crucial than the movement framework that I used to create the piece - this is what the audience will be able to perceive as they watch. As I messed around with my movements, I had to find a way to take movements that to the audience would seem abstract and connect them to the feelings I have about space exploration - a wild mix of fear, elation, sadness, and hope. I settled on two spatial patterns - a progression of orbits, and a long diagonal downstage. The attraction to space exploration for many people is its almost indescribable size, and the massive confidence we humans have in daring to step forward, far beyond safety, into the unknown. The combination of orbits and diagonals do two things: first, they reflect the natural organization of the universe, which directs itself both into distinct patterns and ever onwards towards an uncertain future; second, they echo the circularity inherent in trying to do something like spaceflight. We fail. We stand back up. We repeat. Sometimes this path leads us in a circle. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, it leads us to where we’re trying to go.

    The dance ends with a closed door, because journeys are not infinite; they must end. Stories, though? Stories can be told again and again and again.

“I believe... America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow.”
— Eugene Cernan

In Conclusion: The Future of a Scientist-Artist

When Apollo 17 departed lunar soil it was the end of era, whether people wanted it to be or not. Whenever I put a dance on a stage I wonder if it is the end of my career - if this is the last dance I will ever get to make - and if I’m okay with this one being the end. The answer is always yes, and no. I’m indescribably glad to have been able to make a piece about what space exploration means to me, about opening the greatest of doors into the unknown. I am incredibly grateful to the mentors who helped me get this far, and I’m proud of what I’ve made. And I will keep hoping that I can keep going.

In the beginning, the amount of criticism that I received for having the audacity to pursue both a scientific career and an artistic one shocked me. Now I simply find it exhausting. What does it mean to be a scientist-artist? It means endlessly disappointing a wide array of artists and scientists at once. It means never knowing if you’re a “real art person,” or a “real scientist” either, except for the moments when you remember that you are. It means making time out of nothing and turning seconds into dances and never, ever, making money. But, sometimes I just want to tell a story about how these men went to the moon and how I learned to look up, and there happens to be both a stage nearby and enough people willing to let me do it. So I pull together enough energy to give it my best shot - and art, somehow, happens again.

Thank you to Sydney Skybetter, Doug Varone, and the entirety of Dance Extension at Brown. And godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.