The Higgs Boson Grand Jete

A new programme at CERN lets artists and scientists perform a pas de deux
The Higgs Boson Grand Jete
Gilles Jobin

In this age of science and technology, we accord far more respect to scientists than to artists but, conversely, we remain far more forgiving of scientific illiteracy than we are of gaps in more traditional ‘cultural’ knowledge. Science still has the capacity to capture the public imagination: take, for instance, the genuine excitement over the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle three years ago. But we marvel at the news as we might gawp at a tiger in a zoo, awed by its majesty but essentially alienated, looking in with wonder rather than comprehension.

The Higgs particle was found at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, on the French-Swiss border close to Geneva. It is home to the world’s biggest particle physics laboratory, and the Large Hadron Collider—a machine of unprecedented size and complexity, int­ended to test the wilder shores of theoretical physics, to help find answers to fundamental questions about the make-up of the universe, about the weakness of gravity, about supersymmetry, about extra dimensions, about dark matter. Incidentally, CERN is also where Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web. It is a research institution—not a setting in which one expects to find artists. But for about five years now, CERN has had an arts programme. Since 2012, the programme has funded three-month residencies for two artists every year, midwifing close relationships with CERN scientists and providing a platform for inter-disciplinary collaboration.

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Gilles Jobin, a Swiss experimental choreographer, and the German artist Julius von Bismarck were the first recipients of the Collide@CERN residencies. They collaborated on Quantum, a contemporary dance performance choreographed by Jobin and featuring a light installation by von Bismarck that is as much part of the show as its six dancers. Jobin is bringing Quantum to India at the end of the month. “He is an example,” says Fran­coise Gardies, wife of the Swiss ambassador to India and a veritable cheerleader for Jobin, “of Swiss innovation” in what has been earmarked as the ‘Year of Swiss Innovation in India’

Whatever the bureaucratic reasons, it affords an opportunity, at least for those who live in Bangalore, Chandigarh and Delhi, to see contemporary dance at its most cerebral. Quantum is Jobin’s distillation into movement and choreography months of intense immersion into particle physics at CERN. He has described himself in interviews as “science-disabled” before he went to CERN; as being interested in but lacking the intellectual confidence to implement scientific ideas into his work. The residency at CERN, Jobin says, has changed him utterly, made him refresh his process, and given him new ideas about how to move the body in space, about its connection with, for instance, the floor. Among his new ideas are what he describes as “movement generators”—ways for dancers to create movements within instructions provided by Gilles, a way for dancers to make unexpected movements within a predictable framework, to create new patterns.

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Brave New World A wide view of the Hadron Collider at CERN

Quantum has a jittery, angular energy. Its connections are often as much about missed connections, about the inability to connect, as they are about random connections. Sometimes the dancers are drawn violently to each other only to wrench themselves apart before they touch. This striving to touch provides the piece with much of its tension, the frenetic anxiety of so much of the movement. I saw ‘Quantum’ on the occasion of its 50th performance at a performing arts centre in Meyrin, close to CERN. Appropriately, ‘Quantum’ debuted at CERN itself, above the compact muon solenoid (CMS) detector in September, 2013. Since then Jobin and his six dancers have been on an odyssey, clocking tens of thousands of kilometres around the world, from Plovdiv to Valparaiso. The performances in Bang­alore and Delhi will include discussions between Jobin and eminent physicists, including Balasubramanian Ananth­anarayan, chair of his department at the Centre for High Energy Physics, Indian Institute of Sciences, Bangalore.

I met Prof Ananthanarayan in Geneva, where we both attended Jobin’s GVA sessions, an annual bringing together of artists in various fields for a week of intense workshopping. (I was an observer, a journalist watching creative people at work.) Apart from the professor, there were two contemporary Indian dancers, the award-winning young choreographer Diya Naidu, and Fawas Ameer Hamsa from the Attakkalari Centre for Move­ment Arts in Bangalore, where Jobin is scheduled to hold a workshop during his visit. Also attending the sessions were dancers, a Canadian filmmaker, and musicians and engineers from the US and Germany. Prof Ananthanarayan desc­ribed the workshop as “a fantastic experience...truly eye- opening.” Diya Naidu told me she was “envious” of the funding structures that allowed a choreographer to devote so much time to research and study. One morning, over breakfast, Fawas Hamsa, taciturn much of the time, waxed lyrical over Jobin’s openness to new ideas and about his willingness to take intellectual risks.

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Jobin, at 51, retains a dancer’s coiled energy. He is a figure who could be forbidding but is really a model of generosity, of letting the experts he has assembled together at his utilitarian Geneva studio feel their way into collaboration. It’s impressive and strangely moving to see physicists attempt to explain abstractions to dancers and musicians and see them work in concert to convert those abstractions into sound and movement. This is how art gets made: through ceaseless conversation and through unabashed curiosity. Naidu told me that the most important lesson she learned that week at Jobin’s studio was how to create a collaborative space, to allow for ideas and points of view to take shape in their own time without the interference of hierarchies and demands for immediate evidence of the time spent, for “products”.

Of course, in Quantum, what Jobin brings to India on his tour is a product, polished and professional, tested in front of sophisticated audiences in cities such as Paris and New York. But what is best about Quantum is the spirit of inquiry in which it was made. Art and science, as C.P. Snow was so eager to impress upon his audience, are, generally speaking, exercised by the same great, possibly unanswerable questions. It is necessary then that artists and scientists speak to each other, find a common language in which to share their respective findings. Jobin has managed to do just that.

(Quantum will be performed in Delhi, Chandigarh and Bangalore from November 26 to December 5.)

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