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Nora Gibson’s dance by the (prime) numbers

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by Lewis Whittington for The Dance Journal
photos by Brian Mengini

On one of the recent sub-zero windy days in Philly, things were hot in Chi Movement Arts Center’s main studio as choreographer Nora Gibson huddles with her dancers -Gina-marie Battista-Shifferly, Melissa McCarten, Jessica Warchal-King and Amy Novinski- to give them notes while they removed their pointe shoes collapsed on the floor and sweating.

The quartet had just completed a rigorous run-through of Gibson‘s newest work – 2^57,885,161 – 1 –   and had repeated portions of the ethereal end section of the 30 minute ballet, with its exacting adagio point work “Don’t forget anything before the next rehearsal,” Gibson jokes with them.

Students of math will recognize Gibson’s title, but for the rest of us, Gibson explains that it is “the largest prime number known, as of January 2014.” The number inspired her ballet on pointe, which will have its premiere at the Performance Garage the last two days in February.

Dancer-choreographer Nora Gibson

Gibson recalls that her impulse to develop the math-choreography theme came when she “saw this graphic in a magazine depicting the currents of prime numbers as they go further out. There are beautiful pathways and ideas in that image, which I thought looked like a dance score.”

Her interest in all things math was inspired “to take on a subject that deals with infinity,” she also connected to how math deals with provable and un-provable scientific “ideals” as part of it might relate creatively. Gibson took her interest a step further studying the field with mathematics professor Derek Smith, while on a Choreographer’s on Campus Initiative residency at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa.

“I respect how mathematicians approach their work and I feel I have a kinship with that in my approach. The ideas communicated in prime number theory are just so big and gorgeous and I wanted to convey that sense of awe in ballet about math,” Gibson said, laughing at the audacity of her equation.

However conceptual, it all comes down to the dancers and the dance. “Especially in an abstract piece, I want the dancers to have a great sense of self,” she said a few minutes later, praising the commitment to the project by these dancers.

“I love my dancers because they are technical.  It is difficult to remember and connect to this movement because it’s very patterned, architectural and abstract. On pointe, it’s the slow-burn, that’s how they put it, when I do longer pieces like this,” Gibson said.
The score for 2^57,885,161 – 1 was composed by Gibson’s longtime musical collaborator Michael McDermott, (on the club DJ circuit aka Mikronesia) who has been in the studio with the dancers during its development. Previously, they worked separately, Michael said, he would complete the music before Gibson created set the choreography.

McDermott has been working in studio during rehearsals as well, “The music is electronic sounds, synthesizers and piano and this has been more collaborative because I will be playing this live for the performance,” McDermott said.

He took it immediately in interesting directions musically that directly reflects the mathematical concept by constructing musical scales based on prime numbers. Gibson commented that she usually never makes suggestions, but for this her single request was for him to consider, she said “meter, because the choreographic patterns and unison work, I wanted a certain pulse for this. I love working with Michael, we have the same aesthetics.”

McDermott comments that he formulated “ideas of the piece for the composing process of picking frequencies and intervals that match these prime number sequences that Nora was working on choreographically,” which he explains as a math driven process

“The rhythms are based on twin prime numbers which are separated by one digit- 3, 5, 7- etc. I took those numbers and mapped them to the keyboard and it turned out to be five pitches for 88 keys. One section is build around just those five notes. It turned out great,”
In other sections, the composer worked the same concept with chords and “composing so it could be modular, so it really came together in the studio and the dancers the last three weeks,” he said. Other scoring is synced to projected video by Derek Smith during the ballet.

Gibson is committed to pushing the ballet boundaries and specifically, constructing alternative forms of choreographing. She dabbled choreographically with number theorems, for instance, by setting the ballet on four dancers because it was “ironic to work with even numbers of dancers against prime number theories and experimenting in different ways with that,” she said.

The choreographer also still takes class “working on my own technique, the more I push myself, the more I’m in a position to ask my dancers to do new things,” Gibson calls herself a ’formalist’ in ballet idioms, but also champions the different hybrids emerging in ballet as a vital evolution of the field.

“(It’s)fascinating to see an art form that is five – hundred years old to evolve, we have to always explore and define what that means. What is essential to the idea of ballet., what can and can’t change, what should change,” she said.


Nora Gibson Contemporary Ballet’s 2^57,885,161 – 1 on a split bill at the Performance Garage Feb. 27 & 28, with a selection of repertory works by New York choreographer Bryan Koulman will also features live musicians performing works by   Beethoven, Ravel, Jolivet and Rouse. 

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