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Northwestern University

Mathematics and Dance

PhD student helps New York dance troupe incorporate fractals Into choreography

Ed. note: Over the past two years, Jesse Wolfson, a doctoral student in the Department of Mathematics, has been working with Brooklyn-based choreographer Reggie Wilson and his Fist and Heel Performance Group. Wolfson’s role has been to help the dancers understand the formal mathematical structures in African and Africanist performance cultures. The product of their work together — Moses(es) — will be performed at the Dance Center at Columbia College on April 3, 4 and 5.

Working with Wilson and his dancers has been a great pleasure.  The sophistication and ubiquity of the deployment of fractal structures in African cultures is fascinating, and it has been eye-opening to encounter abstract mathematics used to communicate and reinforce specific social meanings. 

In a striking example, cities in one Bantu culture are constructed as a large ring of family enclosures, each enclosure comprises a ring of houses, each house is itself circular, and inside each house is a miniature ringed city, representing the dwellings of ancestors.  The self-similarity of the urban design embodies social values such as communality, reciprocity and interconnectedness.  My project has been to identify similar uses of fractals in African performance cultures, and to help Wilson and his dancers understand when these fractals appear, how they are generated, and to what effect they are and can be deployed. 

Prior to this project, I had no training in artistic dance.  On the other hand, my mathematical training means that I am attuned to formal structures, to the ways they can be put together or broken apart, and to ways we might vary or play with them.  This means I tend to see different aspects of the choreography than Wilson and his dancers, and I tend to respond to a piece in different ways. 

By helping Wilson and his dancers to recognize and gain fluency with mathematical ideas, I have helped them to develop new strategies for organizing and directing bodies in motion.  In turn, by teaching me to see and understand dance as they do, they have helped me to better understand and more richly experience an activity and art form that I love.

Wilson and his dancers premiered Moses(es) in September 2013 at the Fringe Arts Festival in Philadelphia, and then at the American Dance Institute in Washington, D.C.  The New York premiere took place in December at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Next Wave Festival. It has been a privilege to work so closely with such talented and creative artists, and it has been deeply satisfying to do so using mathematics and mathematical ideas.

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