Dance, Data & Discovery: Nora Gibson’s NothingThatIsNotThere

by Jane Fries for The Dance Journal

Nora Gibson Contemporary Ballet presented its cerebral new ballet NothingThatIsNotThere this past weekend at The Performance Garage, in conjunction with the Philadelphia Science Festival. The work is a partnership between choreographer Gibson and Dr. Leslie Lamberson’s Dynamic Multi-functional Materials Laboratory at Drexel University. A mash-up of data-driven inquiry and aesthetic exploration, NothingThatIsNotThere is a science experiment in the guise of a ballet performance – as well as vice versa.

In the first half of the dance, seven classically trained dancers execute austere phrases of movement. There seems to be some kind of mechanical system set in motion, but the laws that govern the system are a mystery. Against the sparse, sometimes piercing electronic score by Bernard Parmegiani, the dancers repeat motifs such as arms spread wide, back arched, looking upwards or long balances in relevé. The wide stage of The Performance Garage provides a broad canvas, and the visual interest is in observing the changing spatial relationships between the bodies.

Gibson’s choreography tinkers with ballet steps and phrases: her dancers (clad in practice clothes) matter-of-factly try them out here and there, in this or that direction, alone or in groups. The emphasis is on their technical precision, yet they don’t come across as robotic. The cast includes Sean Thomas Boyt, Brian Cordova, José R. Mangual, Barbara Craig, Kathryn Van Yarhes, Amy Novinski and Adrianna de Svastich.

Before the performance, Gibson explained that the dancers had been outfitted with accelerometers during rehearsals, with Dr. Lamberson’s lab collecting the data generated by the choreographed action. Rochitha Nathan, an engineering student at Drexel, created animated graphics from this data. In the second half of the dance, these colorful lines and circles are projected on a large screen behind the dancers, moving slowly in dim lighting now.  In a press release, Gibson said it’s meant to be a “contemporary reference to vintage classical ballets that take one to a mythical or mystical land in the 2nd Act.”

Other Drexel students presented exhibits in the lobby before the show that examined some of the physics of dance such as gravity, balance and the dynamics of turning. Concertgoers had an opportunity to experiment with the accelerometer devices and see for themselves how changes in motion affected the live streaming of the graphic data on a computer screen.

The abstract beauty of NothingThatIsNotThere makes it a fitting piece for a science festival. The viewer must be curious and alert to what’s happening, but at the same time open about its sense and significance. It’s a dance I’d like to see again in order to investigate its underlying principles further.


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