Before veteran Swiss choreographer Gilles Jobin entered his artistic residency at CERN—the European Centre for Nuclear Research and the largest particle-physics lab in the world—he was what you might call science-averse. The idea of particle physics seemed too complicated and abstract to grasp. Or so he imagined.
“I thought it was too mathematical,” he explains from San Francisco, where his resulting dance work is showing before heading to Vancouver. “But I realized in CERN that it’s about the much more general topic about the existence of life and creation of the universe. I realized it covered a lot of the concepts of the human condition.”
For several months in 2012, the dance artist was immersed in the place where scientists re-create the conditions around the big bang, using the Large Hadron Collider. His piece based on the experience, called Quantum, is unlike anything audiences have seen before: an abstract vision of six dancers moving under swinging industrial lamps designed by visual artist Julius von Bismarck, also a onetime CERN resident. Jobin sets his exploration of matter, gravity, force, and scale to an electronic score by American composer Carla Scaletti—one that incorporates and sonifies data from the Large Hadron Collider.
CERN turned out to be a gold mine of inspiration for Jobin. He was surrounded by hundreds of the world’s top scientists, billions of pieces of data being collected, and, most spectacularly during his residency, the game-changing discovery of the Higgs boson particle in July 2012. Jobin explains that the event took on special meaning for him because physicist Peter Higgs predicted the particle in 1964, the year Jobin was born. “I was there for the announcement, and Mr. Higgs was very emotional,” he says. “It took all my life [for them] to discover that.” (Higgs won the Nobel Prize in 2013 for the successful prediction.)
The discoveries going on at CERN had a huge effect on the way Jobin creates movement. Dance is so often thought of as working with, and against, gravity, but the choreographer had that entire premise changed. “I was surprised to find that gravity is almost nonexistent as a force. It is very, very weak. To prove it, I can lift my arm very easily right now against the mass of the whole planet,” he says. “The fact that we are holding together has nothing to do with gravity but electromagnetic force. That means we are just floating above Earth. Plus the Earth is moving all the time, the universe is expanding all the time, and we are constantly in huge motion. It’s going very, very fast but we don’t feel it.”
He also had his notions of contact, so integral to dance, upended by his new knowledge of physics. “We hold together without touching—nothing touches nothing,” he explains. “We are mainly made of emptiness and particles are constantly crossing our bodies from space. So it’s these kinds of things that do change my perspective of reality. It’s a new way to think about how the body moves in space.”
When you see Quantum, watch for the influence of those ideas in the densely textured choreography, as well as that of the symmetry that occurs in physics, and concepts of magnetic force. It’s a visceral experience, with the moving lights and the strange, immersive score. Just don’t expect a cold science lesson, Jobin stresses.
“It’s not a piece about physics,” he says. “It’s very abstract, but humans are humans: these are alive humans.”
The Dance Centre presents Compagnie Gilles Jobin’s Quantum at the Scotiabank Dance Centre from Thursday to Saturday (October 16 to 18).