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Doing the double helix

The Human Genome Project is an amazing feat. But could it be conveyed in dance? Choreographer John Pennington found a way.

March 23, 2003|Jennifer Fisher | Special to The Times

When dancer-choreographer John Pennington told friends he was making a dance about the Human Genome Project, they mostly just raised their eyebrows and said, "Good luck." Like Pennington himself, before he launched into a frenzy of reading almost a year ago, most of them knew only that scientists were unraveling the secrets of human genes, that it all had something to do with predicting and curing disease, and that a great deal of hope and controversy surrounded the endeavor. But, how, exactly, would that become a dance?

"Well, I kind of wondered about that myself at first," Pennington says, sitting on the sidelines of of a spacious, shadowy Pomona College dance studio in Claremont, where he commutes from Silver Lake to teach modern dance. "I started thinking about Disneyland, when there used to be a journey to the center of an atom. You sat on a little cart and it felt like you were getting smaller and smaller, until you were inside an atom, looking at electrons bouncing around with lights." He leans forward in a characteristically enthusiastic tilt, laughing about the fact that he's describing a ride as an artistic muse.

"So, I thought, why not start there, only with the genetic process? What if I were a piece of DNA, a piece of information on a chromosome or a spiral strand?"

Both literal and abstract movement ended up in the final work, and it looks nothing like a Disney ride. By the time "SPR Synthesis Project" premiered in a gallery at Scripps College in September, Pennington had made various scientific terms -- "double helix," "moving along the strand" and "translation and transcription" -- into a performance that had the audience laughing at one moment and watching in awed silence the next. Response was equally encouraging at performances in November and January at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. The 25-minute work will make its East Coast debut Friday at the City University of New York's Graduate Center in Manhattan, and it may be expanded for future performances in Southern California.

Although the piece highlights Pennington as solo performer (assisted by dancer Jerrad Roberts at the edges), it emerged in collaboration with visual artist Susan Rankaitis and molecular biologist Robert Sinsheimer, who was instrumental in initiating the Human Genome Project on a national scale. Bits of photographs that Rankaitis took of Pennington dancing ended up in her contribution, an 8-by-16-foot curved panel of images in the shape of a chromosome that stands behind him as he dances. Sinsheimer's recorded explanations make up a major part of the score.

"I thought it was an interesting experiment, and I understand about experiments," Sinsheimer says on the phone from his home in Santa Barbara. "I think it's important for people to know about the Human Genome Project -- it could affect so many people -- and dance is certainly another way to do it."

Pennington is still reading genetic news and thinking of ways to incorporate the issues, while sticking with the elements that have worked so far. "About midway through the process, I found this strand of lights I knew I could work with," he says of pulsating fiber-optic lights that he winds around himself and unwinds near the start of the piece, an effect that Sinsheimer thinks works to suggest the DNA molecule unwinding. "I knew all the movement had to be very clear and honest, because people would be standing very close to me in a gallery space," Pennington says. For the New York concert hall performance, some adjustments will be made. Rankaitis, for one thing, is making her images "dance" using DVD projections.

What will remain constant is audience participation -- a new idea for Pennington, who spent nearly 15 years dancing with L.A.'s Bella Lewitzky Dance Company before it disbanded in 1997. In one section of "SPR Synthesis Project" (the initials represent the three collaborators), Pennington splits the audience into cheering sections to suggest the commercial companies that have competed to complete the human genome sequence and acquire patents. Later, covering his silvery top and pants with a latex poncho, he has audience members write on him as a symbolic passing along of genetic information. "I wanted to include a ritual act, where people could feel like part of it, giving their personal 'signature,' " he says. "What I realized is that we are the eventual end of genetic material, so decoding the genes is about all of us. It's ultimately about the human condition."

Science with artistic resonance

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