Cellular Dance

a multi-media ballet to illuminate the concerted movement of living cells
through science, music and movement


Cellular Dance is part of Music of Reality’s ongoing mission to bring artists, scientists and musicians together in collaborative projects that share their insights with a wide audience, 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. 

Our project will explore key moments in the life of cells, shining a light on their movements and behaviors in a variety of contexts - from the growth of the embryo, to life within an organism. A central topic is gastrulation: a crucial life event that we all undergo at the cellular level. 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.

For further details: Tomer et al, Nature Methods, 3 June 2012 (Advance Online Publication).
“It is not birth, marriage, or death, but gastrulation which is truly the most important time in your life”

— Lewis Wolpert

The Performance

Our project will take the form an evening performance, with the main feature of a 20-minute original ballet produced by Music of Reality, 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, 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.

Reach of the Project

Our central mission of this project is to reach and inspire a wide range of people by performing in many different settings:

1. Premiere performance at UMass Boston. This event will launch the project and premiere the commissioned work, juxtaposed with scientific lectures and a wider musical program evoking the world of cells. 

 2. Other universities. We adapt the work to fit in alternate and smaller settings 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 scalable to fit most environments.

3. High School performances. As above, we adapt the work to fit in a smaller setting if needed. Accompanying 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.

The Music

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.

listen at:


Pianist Sophia Subbayya Vastek


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.”



We are seeking funds to cover the creation of 1. the commissioned work Cellular Dance (c.20 minutes), 2. the premiere performance at UMass Boston


1. Work Creation

Music Creation - including composer commission, workshopping with musical ensemble, and studio recording time: $6000

Dance Creation - including choreography commission, workshopping with dance ensemble: $4000 

Total = $10,000


2. Premiere Performance

- Artists -

Artist Fees for Musicians and Dancers: $3000


- Equipment -

Piano Rental: $1000

Sound System and Microphones: to be provided jointly by Music of Reality (no charge) and UMass Boston (budgeted separately)


- Venue -

Rental of the UMass Ballroom and staging: $3737.50

Total = $7,737.50


Project Total Budget: $17,737.50



October 2018 - creative work begins

January 2019 - rehearsals begin with dancers and musicians

04/22/2019 - final full day of rehearsals

04/23/2019 - morning set up in the venue, rehearsals in the afternoon, PERFORMANCE (provisionally scheduled for 6pm)