Carl Flink of Black Label Movement: When dance informs science

John Bohannon (top), Lauren Baker, Renee Copeland, Natalie Bucey, Eddie Oroyan, Jose Bueno & Carl Flink (left to right)
John Bohannon (top), Lauren Baker, Renee Copeland, Natalie Bucey, Eddie Oroyan, Jose Bueno & Carl Flink (left to right)
Photo by William Cameron courtesy Black Label Movement

In Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal the 18th-century satirist famously suggested that poor children in Ireland be eaten, rather than become a burden to their parents and country. Nearly 300 years later, science journalist John Bohannon made his own modest proposal, espousing that instead of forcing workers to watch endless PowerPoint presentations at the cost of millions of dollars in productivity per year, they instead employ dancers -- who otherwise would be homeless and/or prostitutes because of today's economy -- to demonstrate concepts that would normally be shown on an overhead projector. 

Bohannon presented his thesis at the TEDX Brussels, where he notably did not use a PowerPoint presentation but instead utilized the talents of four dancers from Black Label Movement plus five dancers from Brussels. You can see the presentation here. You can also head over to the Cowles Center this weekend to see it in person, along with numerous other works. 

In his blog about the TEDX talk Bohannon, who created the Dance Your Phd contest, writes that originally he had envisioned writing an optimistic piece of theater about science, but as he got to know the dancers and learned how many of them lived without healthcare, he ended up drawing from Swift instead. The end result is a piece that is inspired by science and has a political message, but ultimately celebrates the beauty of dance as an art form. 
Patrick Jeffrey (leaping), and Eddie Oroyan (catching)
Patrick Jeffrey (leaping), and Eddie Oroyan (catching)
Photo by William Cameron courtesy Black Label Movement

BLM Artistic Director Carl Flink says that he was intrigued by the project because while he has a deep passion for concert dance, it alone doesn't sustain him as an artist, thinker, or citizen. For Flink and BLM, the conversation between science and dance has forced them to step outside their comfort zones and interact with people who might think in a different way. "It really has led to opening new doors in my personal choreography,"  he says.

For example "Hit," which receives its Twin Cities premiere this weekend, is an exploration of the technique of impact. In the quartet, four dancers explore slapping, crunching, and ramming into each others' bodies. For inspiration, Flink drew from his work with biomedical engineer David Odde from the University of Minnesota. 

The interior of a cell is "a very chaotic space," Flink says. "It's violent from a physics standpoint." BLM has embarked on a collaborative relationship with Odde, where the dancers are embodying what Odde was experimenting with in his head. 

The collaboration with Odde, now in its fourth year, has been a learning experience. "He has a real passion for dance and art," Flink says. The two were connected by the director of the Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Minnesota, who thought that they might collaborate since Flink was interested in chaos and catastrophe, and Odde was interested in the chaos inside of a cell. "We talked and hit it off on a personal level," Flink says. 
Crystal Runk (top), Patrick Jeffrey (middle) and Stephanie Laager (bottom)
Crystal Runk (top), Patrick Jeffrey (middle) and Stephanie Laager (bottom)
Photo by William Cameron courtesy Black Label Movement

In the beginning, the idea was that the dancers of BLM were going to physicalize and communicate Odde's research. But very early on filmmaker Robert Hammel, who was interviewing them, asked Odde if the dancers could have a substantive impact on his scientific research. 

After Hammel asked the question "there were ringing echoes of silence," Flink says. It was as if he was trying to think of what to say without insulting his friend. 

But shortly after, Odde asked several of his scientist colleagues to view some of the techniques that the dancers were employing, using random movement rules to show the effect of how the interior of a cell works. The dancers were demonstrating when all of a sudden they all stopped, and the scientists looked nervously at each other. 

It turned out, Odde and his colleagues had seen an experiment occur right in front of them that called into question a major line of research in their field. "It was an 'A-ha!' moment," Flink explains. "We realized suddenly that we were not just dancing." 

Flink says BLM has tried to weave the evolution of the company -- in the realms of collaborations with both Odde and Bohannon -- into the season. 

"A Modest Proposal" will open the concert. "I'm very excited about it, but it seems risky," Flink says. "It's very performative, but people going to the Cowles Center -- are they going to be comfortable with a man who talks about science?" It's definitely not a predictable way to open a show, he admits, but he's looking forward to the reaction. 

As for "Hit," Flink says it shows the dialogue and the choreographic process in terms of how the encounter with Odde has impacted what the company is doing. 

Unlike the evening-length works that BLM is known for -- such as "Wreck" or "Field Songs," which were not linear stories but had theatrical elements -- the new work is very much impacted by the spontaneous efforts that the company has been doing with Odde in terms of organic motions inside of a cell. 

BLM will also perform "For She," a solo featuring Laura Selle Virtuccio; "Duet for Wreck," which will feature Flink and his wife, Emily; a new surrealist piece called "Canary"; and "This Bleeding Heart..."


8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m. on Sunday
The Cowles Center for Dance and Performing Arts
528 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis

Black Label Movement "HIT" Teaser (September 2011) from Black Label Movement on Vimeo.

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