Danse Lumiere banner
The Star Dances

Choreography by KATHRYN ROSZAK
In collaboration with astronomer BETHANY COBB, Ph.D.

Kathryn and Bethany
Kathryn Roszak and Bethany Cobb at the Dance/Science
summer camp, July 2010
In 2009 Kathryn Roszak partnered with UC Berkeley astronomer Bethany Cobb to develop a unique presentation, The Star Dances, combining the art of dance with the science of astronomy. The work premiered in October of that year at the historic Herbst Theater in San Francisco.

The Star Dances was presented by Humanities West as part of their program "Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler: Redefining our Place in the Universe", in celebration of the International Year of Astronomy 2009. Roszak's choreography, set to music that included a rare piano version of Gustav Holst's "The Planets", was interwoven with a multimedia presentation by Dr. Cobb. Ms. Roszak and Dr. Cobb also gave a preview lecture the week before at the venerable Mechanics' Institute in San Francisco.

In December 2009 The Star Dances was presented at the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley, expanded into an interactive program that invited the participation of families; the program was repeated in April 2010 at the Kensington Hilltop elementary school. In July 2010 Ms. Roszak and Dr. Cobb held a very successful Dance/Science summer camp that combined dance and creative movement with science-oriented crafts and experiments.

The following article originally appeared in(PDF OF THIS ARTICLE)


Mercury Magazine

Reaching Out: Dance as Astronomical Outreach
Conveying the dynamic nature of the universe to the general public is a challenge.

by Bethany Cobb

Astronomy is renowned for exposing the intrinsic beauty of the universe. What a single Hubble Space Telescope image cannot capture, however, is that astronomy is also kinetic: violent and chaotic, rhythmical and graceful, at turns languid and swift.

This presents an interesting challenge. How can astronomers convey the dynamic nature of the universe to the general public? Animations and computer simulations are one obvious pathway. Less conventional methods, however, have the power to attract new audiences and even to challenge our own minds.

Combining dance and astronomy is clearly a non-traditional approach, but these seemingly disparate realms can be fused successfully to educate and inspire an audience. Dance is defined by motion and is a powerful tool for expressing the character of the ever-changing universe. The profound nature of dance also allows it to connect organically with the audience. Perhaps most importantly, the non-threatening artistry of dance may even attract members of the general public who might otherwise be intimidated by the science of astronomy.

During the last year, I had the pleasure of working with choreographer Kathryn Roszak on a dance/astronomy collaboration inspired by the 2009 International Year of Astronomy. I am not a dancer and have no experience with professional dance other than a sincere appreciation for the performing arts. But this unconventional project has significantly expanded my vision of astronomy public outreach.

Kathryn Roszak is an artist with considerable experience translating novel, scholarly concepts into dance. Her dance company, Danse Lumière, creates dance theater linking arts, sciences, and the humanities. Kathryn and I met at the beginning of 2009 through our teaching at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UC Berkeley. I was a new instructor at the Institute, beginning my first class: "Six Questions for Modern Astronomy." When we met, Kathryn was preparing a dance inspired by astronomy ("Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler") for Humanities West's Fall 2009 program. Humanities West is a non-profit organization in San Francisco.

Kathryn was excited about learning more about the universe. I provided her with articles regarding the newest discoveries in astronomy. Kathryn invited me to attend rehearsals of "The Star Dances" to discuss astronomy with the dancers. At the rehearsals, I was impressed by how astronomy was encapsulated into the dance both in apparent and subtle, imaginative ways. "The Star Dances" are accompanied by a piano version of Gustav Holst's "The Planets," with additional music by Eric Satie.

Prior to the October 2009 première of "The Star Dances," Humanities West invited us to talk about our collaboration at the Mechanics' Institute Library in San Francisco. I discussed the astronomical science, while Kathryn spoke about her creative process. I was pleased that our audience included more women than is typical for the average astronomy public lecture.

LHS performance

"The Star Dances" was presented at the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley on December 12, 2009, as an interactive family program. We interspersed the dance with a multi-media astronomy presentation. To help the kids connect the dance with the science that I explained, Kathryn and the dancers demonstrated specific dance movements before each section was performed. For example, I showed videos of material streaming from the Sun into space, and talked about how these particles impact Mercury and even cause the aurora on Earth. The dancers then illustrated a part of the "Mercury" dance in which they interact by tossing around an imaginary ball.

This program also involved active audience participation. During the talk, the audience answered questions about astronomy. At the end of the program, a group of kids (and parents) became particles moving around the universe and forming into a solar system. Inflatable models of the planets added to the excitement! We believe we succeeded in our goal of inspiring in our young audience an interest in, and enthusiasm for, both the arts and science.

This exciting combination of astronomy and dance promotes intellectual curiosity and makes both subjects accessible to new audiences. Therefore, we plan to continue our collaboration in the future. "The Star Dances" depict, with form and movement, the universe's energy, grace, and even playfulness, and we hope our program illustrates that science public outreach can successfully incorporate art and beauty.

BETHANY COBB is a National Science Foundation Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow at UC Berkeley, where she studies gamma-ray bursts and engages in public outreach, including teaching at the Berkeley Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

Kensington assembly
To know the Solar System, become the Solar System: Dr. Cobb with (L to R) Mars, the Moon and Earth, Venus, the Sun, and Mercury at a performance of "The Star Dances" at Kensington Hilltop School, April 2010 
in dance

The following article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue of

In Dance
a publication of Dancers' Group, San Francisco

Glancing at the Stars

by Kate Law

On October 2nd Humanities West opens its 25th Anniversary Season with "Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler: Redefining our Place in the Universe," a two-day program of lectures, discussions, and the premiere of Kathryn Roszak's "The Star Dances." This event is a celebration of the International Year of Astronomy - honoring the 400th anniversary of Galileo's first use of the telescope in 1609.

"The Star Dances" is the result of a collaboration between Roszak and Dr. Bethany Cobb, a National Science Foundation/UC Berkeley post-doctorate fellow. The dances take inspiration from the latest star-mapping by astronomers from UC Berkeley and from new research on colliding galaxies. Roszak and Cobb will also give a pre-program lecture on Thursday, September 24, at the Mechanic's Institute. This is the start of an ongoing investigation that will eventually grow. By December when the piece is presented again at Lawrence Hall in Berkeley it will become more interwoven with text and multi-media images.

The goal of presenting a work of dance as the only artistic expression in the midst of a two-day scientific forum is to illustrate the physics of astronomy in a format that an audience will relate to. Roszak sees "Star Dances" as a perfect fit for this arrangement. "The dance provides a visual, poetic interpretation of scientific concepts," she said. "Space is vast and concepts can be abstract and mind-bending. Having the dancers as the cosmic elements humanizes the science. I feel through performance it is possible to more directly access cosmological mythology. Through movement we can show harmony, violence, and the ordering of the universe."

Cobb, whose role at Berkeley is, in part, to communicate astronomy to ordinary non-scientist type people, believes that dance will pique people's intellectual interest in science. She hopes through this program and others like it she can bring astronomy back into people's daily lives. Astronomy, star-gazing, and the mythology that surrounds it used to be an enormously important aspect of people's lives. Today, we can't even see the stars at night unless we are camping and the most attention people pay to astronomy is when they read their horoscope in tabloid magazines. Roszak mused on this topic noting that "we are all going around in our cars, living our daily lives, and the entire cosmos is happening all around us and we don't even notice. There are massive collisions in space that happen all the time and we don't have a clue." Hopefully "Star Dances" will get audiences to think more deeply about the cosmos.

The project came into being because Roszak was in discussion with Humanities West about creating a work set to the Music of the Spheres, one of "Star Dances" accompaniments. She wanted to learn more about astronomy so she looked into classes, saw that Dr. Cobb's mission is to make astronomy accessible and signed up for Cobb's continuing education class. After class she talked to Cobb about her choreography and since then Dr. Cobb has been interested in the entire process. She has been a part of the process by writing letters in support of the project, giving ideas for costuming, attending rehearsals, and giving feedback on the dancers' animation of the ideas of scientists.

Roszak has since also brought Dr. Carl Pennypacker into her collaborative process. Pennypacker is a UC Berkeley physicist and educator who is also contributing feedback as well as musical composition to the work. In her research process she has also consulted Dr. Nao Suzuki, who together with Pennypacker, works on dark energy. In addition to local observatories, she has also visited Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles and the Huntington Library in Pasadena.

Roszak is tremendously pleased to be collaborating with these scientists. She has had a long interest in combining dance and science. In the past she has explored the stars and the northern lights as well as geometric patterns and mathematics. One of the concepts that she finds most inspiring is the fact that our bodies are made of the same particles as the stars, so having the dancers perform is a visceral way to embody that.

I asked Roszak about her process of generating movement based on technological star maps. She explained that "in the current choreography, Kepler's "Music of the Spheres" is at the core. Images of elliptical orbits and colliding galaxies provide images for the development of movement material. Some of this is created through structured improvisation with the dancers." She has also incorporated some of Cobb's scientific "demo's" and the movement found in them into choreography.

"Star Dances" is also set to a piano duet version of Gustav Holst's "The Planets." As the music is more familiar in orchestral versions that bring to mind the vastness of the Star Wars soundtrack, she opted for something less familiar with few popular connotations. This very dynamic piano music is combined with music by Eric Satie which is more lyrical and has beautiful harmony.

The piece is set on four dancers who are working with orbits and ellipses. The movement is conscious of special patterns and how one dancer's movement affects another because they represent heavenly bodies with gravitational pulls. Ancient ideas of astronomy and mythology are being examined as well, especially the three muses (represented by the three female dancers) who are part of the divine order of the universe.

I asked Roszak if she felt at all intimidated to present her take on the movement of the stars to a roomful of astrophysicists. She responded that she was not. "Some of the people who I am working seem to be aesthetically interested in their scientific work and want to engage with it more," she said. "I feel excited about this cross disciplinary conversation. I have my perspective on things and they have theirs. I am coming from the studio and they are coming from the lab."

If you want to see Roszak's take on the stars while also learning a great deal from the other presentations check out "Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler: Redefining our Place in the Universe," on Friday, October 2 at 8pm at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco.

Kate Law is a dance artist, aerialist, and co-director of Bow & Sparrow. She loves writing about and being involved in the dance community. Katelaw.org

the Sun King

© 2014 Kathryn Roszak   •   Danse Lumière   •   Dance on Center   •   (510) 233-5550   •   kdance@sonic.net

• Updated 15 January 2014 • W3C Validated XHTML 1.0 Transitional CSS 3 •