CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — An interdisciplinary performance combining science, music and movement will explore humanity’s place in the universe, ranging from the microscopic level to the expanse of the cosmos. The world premiere of “The Joy of Regathering” will take place on September 17 at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.
The recurring theme of the play is coming together after a long separation – represented in many ways, including people coming together after the shutdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The performance was created by physics professor Smitha Vishveshwara, drama professor Latrelle Bright, music professor Stephen Andrew Taylor, dance professor Rebecca Nettl-Fiol and chemistry professor and former director of the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology Jeffrey Moore, with contributions from collaborators from various artistic and scientific disciplines on campus.
Vishveshwara and Bright created “Quantum Voyages,” a 2018 performance piece explaining the basic concepts of quantum physics that debuted at physics professor and Nobel laureate Anthony Leggett’s 80th birthday celebration, and “Quantum Rhapsodies”, a more elaborate 2019 production performed at the Beckman Institute. which explored groundbreaking ideas in quantum physics and the role they play in technology and which included music performed by the Jupiter String Quartet.
“The Joy of Regathering” is a similar art-science confluence and even more ambitious project, Vishveshwara and Bright said. The production uses performing and visual arts to explore concepts of quantum physics, biochemistry, geology and astronomy. The Krannert Center performance is the first iteration of this new work.
“It’s time travel, from microscopic to human to astronomical,” Vishveshwara said. “It explores coming together in all of these terrains – within cells, communities and galaxies.”
The group held four workshops to develop the piece which included hearing from scientists from across campus. Geology professor Bruce Fouke spoke about the organisms that live in the geothermal waters of Yellowstone National Park; chemistry professor Martin Gruebele explained how sound can help us understand biomolecular processes; biochemist Emad Tajkhorshid discussed cell membranes and the coronavirus; and biophysics researcher Melih Sener explained photosynthesis. Astrophysicists Jeffrey Filippini, Charles Gammie, Gilbert Holder and Helvi Witek helped the group understand the formation of planetary systems, galaxies and black holes.
Scientists were invited to speak not only about the basis of their research, but also about their connection to our humanity.
“Scientists are very poetic, actually, and very metaphorical,” Nettl-Fiol said.
One workshop was dedicated to improvising on various musical instruments to create a soundscape for the production, and the fourth workshop, led by Bright, created an outline of how to present the concepts in a performance.
“We thought about the recurring patterns of coming together and coming apart and why that is” when creating the movement on stage, Bright said. A cast of 12 includes faculty members, students, and community residents. Sometimes they move together in groups, then they disperse and come back together.
The performance comprises four movements, beginning with “We the Animals”, a look at humanity through its gathering, praying, sharing, dancing, fighting and working in nature and by the machine.
It then travels back in time to “Fragments of Life,” examining early biological life, including cells and how they are affected by the coronavirus; photosynthesis; carbon; and sulfur bacteria, which depend on each other to survive in their extreme environments.
“Terra Forms” examines geological features such as rocks and minerals, hot springs and volcanoes. “Journeying the Cosmos” examines astronomical phenomena – planetary formation, the life of a star, black holes and the formation of galaxies.
The Jupiter String Quartet will perform music from the production, along with nine other musicians who will improvise during the performance. The quartet will perform a composition by Taylor that includes a complex and frenetic passage based on the genetic sequence of a coronavirus protein. Taylor also uses sonifications from the LIGO Gravitational Wave Project for the section on black hole formation and combination. Shanitkumar Jain, a classical Indian singer based in Bangalore, India, will join the ensemble.
Nettl-Fiol created a 19-minute dance piece that is performed to music Taylor wrote to represent the coronavirus. Dancers also appear in the last movement to represent various celestial bodies, with six dancers representing the formation of planets surrounding a sun. The dancers move away from each other becoming stars, forming two constellations. Two dancing duets represent the death of stars before they swirl again as they merge to form a black hole, Nettl-Fiol said.
Recorded narration sets the stage for each move and explains scientific concepts.
In a pre-show event, guests will be invited to share their thoughts on the theme of “gathering” and watch a documentary about the process of making the production. A post-show event will include conversations and music.