a multi-media ballet to illuminate the processes of gastrulation
through science, music and movement
Cellular Dance is part of Music of Reality’s ongoing mission to bring artists, scientists and musicians together to participate in collaborative projects - sharing insights with a wide audience and inspiring young minds to explore new areas of study. We believe that, in order for knowledge to speak to us, it must be explored both scientifically and artistically, and only by forming this complete picture can we act to improve our world.
We have chosen to highlight the process of gastrulation as it is a crucial life event we all undergo at the cellular level. Very early in our development – when the embryo is simply a ball of cells – gastrulation occurs as a complex, mesmerizing dance that determines our future as a healthy adult. The process is fraught with risk, requiring thousands of cells to communicate without assistance from a nervous system, and yet – it is orchestrated with delicate precision in all animal life on a daily basis.
Our project will take the form an evening performance, with the main feature of a 20-minute original ballet for 8 dancers, choreographed by Katherine Hooper of the BoSoma Dance Company, with music composed by David Ibbett, featuring pianist Sophia Vastek and multichannel electronic sound. This will be joined by scientific narration of the process of gastrulation, miniature lectures on the topic, and a program of musical pieces connecting with the concepts of growth, development and genetics.
Together, we are working to create a performance that is highly adaptable, and thus able to be performed in university and college settings as well as full-size theatres. This is crucial for meeting our dual goals of inspiring students and engaging with general audiences.
Our scientific partner for this event is cell biologist Dr. Alexey Veraksa of UMass Boston, whose research into the molecular signaling processes of gastrulation is crucial for understanding diseases such as spina bifida, but also to shed light on the fascinating world of cells and their ‘concerted’ movement – how millions of separate entities can move and live as one.
“For me, one of the most mysterious aspects of gastrulation is the long-distance coordination of these movements. The cells at the front and the back of these waves somehow “know” to move just the precise amount they do.
Another very interesting aspect is that while some cells move in one direction, other cells seem to move in an opposite direction or sideways, in order to “give some space” for the new cells to occupy. How this happens is fascinating to see and the question is how this is achieved in the organism. This is the aspect that most reminds me of tai-chi movements.
Yet another mysterious question is how the gastrulation starts quickly and abruptly, with all the cells starting to move together at once.”
- Alexey Veraksa, Associate Professor of Biology at UMass Boston
Alexey’s research will directly inform the structure and educational content of the performance, clearly outlining the key steps of gastrulation in the fruit fly embryo:
1. The axes of head-tail, dorsal-ventral polarity gradually emerge
2. Early patterning of the embryo
3. Cell signaling molecules (the ligand Fog and its receptors Mist and Smog) allow the ventral midline to form
4. Apical constriction as the ventral midline cells move inside the embryo
5. The folding process completes as the second internal layer of cells is formed
The performance will feature projections of gastrulation in Drosophila and zebrafish, based on videos captured by cutting-edge research projects such as Quorum.
These images will be projected on to the stage, and at times directly on to the dancers.
Involving UMass Students
As part of the project, Music of Reality will invite students at UMass Boston to create and perform their own compositions on a theme of biology, the cell and gastrulation. Students from biology and music programs will be encouraged to form partnerships and create original works over the period of a semester, with regular workshops from the Music of Reality artistic team. These will be performed in their own concert, and some will be selected to be part of the central Cellular Dance event.
In order for a presentation to have strong explanatory value, it must effectively present complex information in an accessible form. We believe that a multimedia approach – combining lecture, music and movement – is a great way to connect with young minds who have some knowledge of the process, but will greatly benefit from a performance that both informs and draws attention to the wonder and mystery of this vital cellular event.
Our central mission of this project is to reach and inspire a wide range of people by performing in many different settings:
1. Full concert performance in a dance-theatre setting. Here, we perform the full-scale work, juxtaposed with scientific lectures and other musical pieces that evoke the world of cells.
2. University performances. Here, we adapt the work to fit in a smaller setting if necessary, dependent on the available stage space and technical resources. This portability is something we are planning for right from the start – the number of dancers, scale of projection and electronic sound are easily scalable to fit most environments.
3. High School performances. As above, we adapt the work to fit in a smaller setting if needed. The BoSoma Dance Company often puts on combined performance/workshop events with the New England Arts for Literacy projects, and this project will extend that initiative by incorporating music and science. Workshops will introduce aspiring-scientists to the concepts of cell-signalling and gastrulation, and the worlds of music and movement.
4. Video. We will create a video performance that can be incorporated into undergraduate courses as an illustrative tool. Our scientist partner, Alexey, will guide this process, ensuring that the scientific content meets the educational needs of courses – at UMass Boston, such as Cell Biology and Developmental Biology.
David Ibbett, composer and Music of Reality co-director, writes:
"Gastrulation is one of many biological processes that seem to me to be so complex and fragile – the slightest mistake can be ruinous – and yet evolution has ensured that they take place every day. These notions of fragility, poise and purpose will be key to the feeling of the music – with the keys of the piano being the perfect metaphor for many individuals working together as part of a whole. By working with electronics, these sounds can be combined in layers of increasing complexity, ultimately preparing for the tumulus ‘fold’ that is the central event of gastrulation. The process needs to be simultaneously grand and graceful – combining elements of Classical Ballet with contemporary textural music and elements of electronic music.
Through this combination of sounds, my goal is to capture both the broad scope of the physical processes, but also the subtle chemical communication that is revealed Alexey’s research into Fog and Mist receptors."
David is a frequent collaborator with pianist Sophia Vastek – together, they are the founders of Music of Reality. Their previous musical collaboration, Beauty From Nothing, narrates the formation of a universe - from quantum chaos to particles and matter.
Choreography and Dance
Katherine Hooper of the BoSoma Dance Company, writes:
“The rhythms and patterns of the cells are mesmerizing and inspire movement of a core group of dancers while each has their own role within the development and evolution of the whole. Each unique cell moving through space to come together, moving in harmony and developing in to one organized unit can be inspiration for a piece of dance that will bring this all to life for the viewer, allowing for a greater understanding of the cellular process.
In the development of the piece I would work with the dancers on creating individual movements in relation to each other’s energy, shape and patterns with a reaction in relation to each other using positive and negative space. This will allow the development of the piece to be organic, yet allow for resolution in a defined structure for the final piece.”
Learn more about her work and the BoSoma Dance Company at:
We are seeking funds to cover the creation of the work, the premiere performance, the video – which will be made freely available on a creative commons license – and two outreach events.
Creating the Work
Choreography Commission Fee: $1500
Music Commission Fee: $1500
Live Video Projections Commission Fee: $500
Dance Rehearsal: 40 rehearsal hours with 8 Dancers = $3840
Musician Artist Fees: $2000
Creating the Video
Editing, Post Production: $300
Venue Rental - Somerville Armory: $500
Artist Fees: $1000
Equipment Rental: $500
Piano Tuning: $150
Estimated cost of each event with four dancers: $500
Total for two events: $1000
Project Total Budget: $13,590
Facilities and Equipment Needed
November 2018: Creative work begins with workshops between musicians, dancers and scientists. Out of these discussions and free improvisations, the ultimate structure of the original work is decided. Composer and choreographer complete their tasks, and rehearsals begin on the finished work.
January 2019: Full evening's program is finalised
May 2018: Premiere Performance at UMass Boston
September 2018: Second Performance in Cambridge for a general Boston audience