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  A marriage of physics and dance in Quantum

A marriage of physics and dance in Quantum

Published : Dec 22, 2015, 12:09 am IST
Updated : Dec 22, 2015, 12:09 am IST

Gilles Jobin, the Swiss dancer and choreographer, did what was almost unthinkable — he mixed dance and physics, to create Quantum, a performance that celebrates the dance of the universe through the m

Gilles Jobin, the Swiss dancer and choreographer, did what was almost unthinkable — he mixed dance and physics, to create Quantum, a performance that celebrates the dance of the universe through the movement of elementary particles.

The engineer in me was baffled by how Jobin, who received the Swiss Grand Award for Dance in 2015 for his contribution to the development of contemporary dance, managed to transform a dry, mathematical, formula-based subject like physics into an emotive, graceful dance performance. The piece, which was conceptualised during a three-month artistic residency at the CERN (European Organisation for Nuclear Research) and his discussions with the physicists, is a portrayal of the smallest particles that form matter.


Jobin, who was visiting India for performances of Quantum, took me to the heart of the matter in an instant. “Particle physics is about abstractions, and this dance was thought of as an abstract piece. I was looking at movement generators at CERN and trying to see which aspect of particle physics could be applied to dance. I learnt there that matter is held together by certain forces, of which gravity is the weakest. In contemporary dance we use contact, but the smallest particles in matter don’t touch other. I was fascinated by the thought — how to be together without touching each other. The other aspect that influenced my choreography was symmetry,” Jobin, 51, explained.


The dance itself is a series of situations that Jobin stitched together.

One such scene is Elusive Duo, said Jobin, where the six dancers in three pairs are like a man and a woman. “When you watch the dance, you relate it to your own personal experiences. It is an abstract situation but you can make a story from it or it can just be a rhythmic movement.”

The lumino-kinetic installation by Julius von Bismarck, also conceptualised during a simultaneous CERN residency, creates a beautiful environment for the dance, always moving, always transforming, said Jobin. “Even the costumes, created by Jean-Paul Lespagnard keep transforming.” The music, a creation by Carla Scaletti, incorporates data from the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. “All these elements participate in the experience, they are all interconnected,” said Jobin.


Quantum did not materialise overnight. “Fundamental particles work in different dimensions with different rules. The challenge was translating these into dance, into human dimensions. It was also a quite a task to understand how counter-intuitive rules can be translated into linear reality,” said Jobin. “The next challenge was also how to technically put the performance together. But I was well-prepared because I did my fundamental research. Besides, there were two physicists who helped us with the ideas.”

Quantum’s lead dancer Susana Panades Diaz added, “For me, the confusion was how to translate these science concepts into dance. We got better with time by taking one idea and experimenting with it.”


Florencia Canelli, a professor of physics accompanying Jobin, shared her fascination with the concept of the piece, “It is amazing to think of the projection into dance of what was observed, while we do the same projections in math!”

As a viewer, as intrigued as I was by the mix of physics and dance, I was wondering if I’d be lost while watching the performance given that I have almost entirely forgotten particle physics! When I shared this, Jobin immediately put me at ease. “There is contemplation in my work. I want the audience to see it in a relaxed way. I guide the audience but don’t tell them what to think; I put a context and let you flourish. I make suggestions and leave it up to interpretation. The piece puts you in a certain state; it’s about generating ideas. So understanding physics isn’t a necessity.”


Jobin, who has been dancing since the age of 16, took a step further and added, “Dance is an art of presence. The audience and performers grow old together, but there is something left over after Quantum ends. There is a second life for the dance piece. But for this you have to be non-judgmental.”

Jobin had an interesting time at CERN during his residency. “The scientists were normally not experts in contemporary art, so they were surprised to see that we use strategies to make our art. When they saw that the research we do was serious, they got curious. And we can always have a discussion on aesthetics.” The short three-month residency has influenced Jobin beyond the creation of Quantum.


“Things are not the way you think they are. We are all made of the same fundamental elements — you, me, this table. I have a more holistic approach after understanding the theory and forces behind fundamental particles. Even my next dance — Forca Forte — has a distant relation with particle physics, but is more about a couple.”