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Dance and the Arts Benefit
from Interdisciplinary Study With
Cognitive Sciences at UC San Diego

February 23, 2009

By Barry Jagoda

Famed British choreographer
Wayne McGregor
Famed British choreographer
Wayne McGregor, "Innovator-in-Residence"
at UCSD partners with UC San Diego
Cognitive Scientist David Kirsh.
All Photos by/ Adriene Hughes

UC San Diego has a reputation for interdisciplinary learning, particularly involving the arts and the university’s famous programs in science, social sciences and the humanities. A unique example of this mutual benefit is the recent collaboration between Britain’s famous choreographer Wayne McGregor, his troupe “Random Dance Company” and the Department of Cognitive Science, the nation’s first such department.

The dance company has just completed their third visit and performance in La Jolla and, according to primary host Martin Wollesen, artistic director of Art Power at UCSD and director of the university events office, the synergies get deeper and more valuable with each visit. For three weeks in February, the dancers from “Random Dance” have been in residence for a unique interdisciplinary partnership where their every move during the creation of a new work, to premier later this year in London, has been documented by Cognitive Science Professor David Kirsh and students from two classes he created to study cognition and the arts.

Dancer Agnes Lopez Rio concisely expressed the impact of the cognitive scientists on the company: “We have become much more aware of our habits.   I have definitely broadened my perspective and working with David [Kirsh] makes me realize something about my habits.”

Interdisciplinary Collaboration Began Three Years Ago with Undergraduates

Photo of
Cognitive Science students monitor
every move of dancers from "Wayne McGregor's Random Dance Company"

This collaboration is among the most visible of the marriages of academics with a variety of arts at UCSD.  In this case, the relationship began three years ago when Wollesen was seeking a way to take advantage of the UCSD academic environment at the same time that then-Provost of Sixth College, Gabriele Wienhausen, was in her perpetual search  for ways to get her undergraduate students experiences beyond the classroom.

Explains Wienhausen, “Culture is what makes us human and that is what we explore, looking at it through the lens of art and technology.  Students are required to have real-world experience.  The way we have learned to do this over the years is to get students ‘rattled,’ so they can stop their old patterns and gain, through out-of-class experience, new ways of seeing the world.  This takes courage, imagination and inspiration.  If we can establish relationships between the student and outside influences that have a dynamic practical effect, then we are underway.  We did this with the brilliant choreographer Wayne McGregor, who shared this vision, when he was first on campus in 2007.  Working with Marty Wollesen, we set up a Wayne McGregor workshop where he talked about his profession and what it means to be creative and how you can begin to understand yourself.”

“Interdisciplinary work takes hold at UCSD when you find an in-depth project that reflects the kind of university we are,” said Wollesen.  “We have the college system with a general education program that supports multidisciplinary studies.  And, at Sixth College, for example, with a focus on real-world experiences, we have had a leader in Gabriele Wienhausen who is passionate and enthusiastic, a real visionary who has become an on-going partner for our arts programs combined with academic studies.”

Photo of
Cognitive Scientists employ
photo documentation and detailed
monitoring of dancers movements.

The Art Power residency program is called ‘Innovator-in-Residence Project,’ and it requires that the visitor be both innovative in their artistic field and also interested in the future of scientific research.  Wayne McGregor, for example, had an interest in the field of ataxia the syndrome that leads to the inability to control one’s muscles.  Said Wollesen, “Wayne is both one of the globe’s leading choreographers, very greatly respected in the world of modern dance, choreographer in residence at England’s Royal Ballet and at the famous Sadler’s Wells dance venue, while also deeply interested in how his work can benefit from the contributions of science.” 

Artists, Philosophers Work Closely with Scientists, Social Scientists

A hallmark of the arts at UCSD, working in the environment of some of the nation’s strongest programs in the sciences and social sciences, has been to benefit from this interdisciplinary context.  Here musicians work closely with computer scientists, philosophers collaborate with neuroscientists and, in this current program, performing artists have their work enhanced by those who study the intricate details of human cognition.

“The research has been delivering results from the first day,” said David Kirsh. 

Photo of
Martin Wollesen, artistic director of UC San Diego Art Power, and David Kirsh, professor
of cognitive science observe the dancers.

“One major area focuses on instructions,” he said. “What sort of tasks does Wayne give the dancers?  Which ones work and how?  How does he work with the creative results of each dancer and modify them, morphing in the direction that fits his larger conception?  How are the dancers used as “things to think with”?  What is the nature of choreographic thinking? How does distributed problem-solving work in this sort of domain?
“We have learned something already in each of these areas,” Kirsh said. “The discoveries we're making about these topics have general value beyond the domain of dance.  For instance, instructions are of universal concern, whether they be instructions to workers in factories, instructions to home cooks presented in the form of recipes, instructions for furniture assembly, or classroom instructions in labs, exams and so on.  Choreographers use more modalities than most people.  They gesture continuously. They speak, of course, and they use musical or phonetic sounds – "woooo-aahhh-ka-daaah."  They even push and pull on bodies. There has been little study of how these different modalities figure in getting people to do the right thing.” 

Photo of
Wayne McGregor's Random Dance Company prepares for world premiere in partnership with UC San Diego cognitive science specialists.

“Another thing we have been learning is how memory can be distributed across a team.  The choreographer assigns names to exercises and dance phrases, but doesn't bother to memorize all the solutions and partial solutions the dancers produce.  He requests their solutions in the future and then counts on them recalling them.  It turns out that individual people have memory for different aspects of a phrase: one remembers its kinetics, another its emotionality or its dynamics, a third remembers precise details of where the fingers were placed on another body.  The team as a whole recovers the phrase.”

“Another relevant question is how this artistic product is supposed to be made sense of by an audience.  This too is more general than dance, because it concerns how a creative effort in one field strives to be understandable to non-specialists.” 

Two-Way Connections between Artists and Social Scientists

It is clear that McGregor knows the benefit from the UCSD collaboration, particularly what part of the scientific process is relevant for him and what is surplus:  “I’m not interested in coding,” he said.  “I have a relationship with the dancers where they have to provide answers, body images and that is my focus.  David is starting to help us understand this process.  I am interested in the specificity of why they are building an image.  Is it controllable?  We are able to respond to some of the articulations between me and the dancers.  They are extending my ability to work with the body.  What is the direct connection between what they are thinking about and how they go about constructing a move and how they eventually produce a complete result?”

University-wide Funding of Interdisciplinary Work Is Characteristic of UCSD

Photo of
Wayne McGregor and his
Random Dance Company, along
with David Kirsh and Martin Wollesen,
invited the public to an open rehearsal.

UCSD not only has the talent for this kind of two-way learning process, but the university has a strong desire for interdisciplinary study with vigorous support from Chancellor Marye Anne Fox.  Her office has established an interdisciplinary research program called “Collaboratories,” where researchers from three or more disciplines are funded for interactive work.”  Since the program was started in 2007, 21 groups have come together.   The Chancellor, herself a world-famous chemist, feels strongly about this kind of work as she explains, “Interdisciplinary scholarship is at the heart of the truly excellent research university. More and more frequently, solutions to the most challenging research problems require the collaborative talents of groups of investigators with a range of disciplinary skills.”

“Random Dance” will present the world premier of the as yet unnamed production in the fall of 2009 at Sadler’sWells in London.


Media Contact: Barry Jagoda, 858-534-8567

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