Math + Art + Dance at CoCA

Photo by Amber Lee

People who are fond of the left brain/right brain dichotomy often place math and art at opposite ends of a spectrum. One concrete and logical, the other imaginative and subjective. To challenge that perception, Katherine Cook and Dan Finkel, who run the educational organization Math 4 Love, curated the exhibit Math ∩ Art (math intersects art), produced by Kate Vrijmoet and currently hanging in Pioneer Square’s Center on Contemporary Art.

Playful, geometric sculptures and paintings line CoCA’s gallery walls. Ilana Zweschi uses algorithms to translate texts into numerical instructions for painting, resulting in large grids of unique squares, a patchwork of little windows into some other world. Rachel Holloway’s painting Yellow Quintessence depicts a shattering of yellow shapes, a whole forced apart by encroaching spaces—an intuitive expression of the math behind our expanding universe. The exhibit’s mediums also include 3D-printed clay, needlepoint, projection and, on two occasions last weekend, dance.

Cook is a professional dance improviser as well as a mathematician, and she brings her work necessary and sufficient to the exhibit. Like most improvised dances, the work uses a score, a structure or set of instructions that guide how decisions are made inside the performance. In a pre-show speech, Cook introduces the audience to the guiding principles behind her score. There is equivalence—under what conditions are things the same or different—and morphism, math’s version of a metaphor, concerning connections from one entity to another and the transformation between the two.

Cook and her fellow dancers (Brandin Steffensen, Aaron Swartzman and Corrie Befort) begin walking in a single-file line. With our brains attuned to the ideas of similarity and difference, it’s easy to see the slight variations in their unison movement. They stand before an artwork, observe for a moment, and then each performer breaks into a different reaction—shaking, reaching, melting. They repeat with this structure with several artworks in the gallery, each time with a new response—their transference of visual data to dance an intuitive process of morphism.

Watching transformation is one of the great pleasures of improvisational dance, as an idea spreads through the group and evolves. One dancer begins a crab-like rocking motion and the rest of the cast joins, one by one. Their left-to-right rhythms fall in and out of sync with one another, as each dancer plays with the counterpoint of timing. The footfalls to one side become heavier and more pronounced, and then they are falling side to side, running back and forth across the gallery in a tangled knot of limbs, pushing and pulling at one another.

The majesty lies in how quickly it happens, how adeptly the improviser picks up on what is happening and adapts seamlessly to the action. This is most impressive in the more physically harrowing moments—dancers hurtling themselves through the narrow corridor of the gallery, sometimes onto the bodies of other dancers who collide with them into spinning, impromptu sculptures. The quartet returns repeatedly to a co-created suspension bridge idea, where one dancer is wedged horizontally between the others. Then one point of support collapses and the structure shifts and reassembles. Each dancer, keenly aware of the forces of physics acting on each other through their collective bodies, can respond instantaneously to changing input without the slightest whiff of anxiety. It is this finely tuned improvisational skill that allows the whole group to seemingly dance a single idea at once.

Among the talented cast, Befort is exceptional in her performance. When she joins another’s idea, her adaptations are strange and wonderful, exhibiting refined articulation inside a posture that seems to be constantly on the verge of falling. She performs each action with complete commitment and presence, as if each moment were purely instinctual, the mental process of remembering and performing the score undetectable in her execution.

necessary and sufficient seamlessly transitions between ideas, true to the concepts of equivalence and morphism, each element repeated with slight variation until it has organically arrived at something completely different. The only more abrupt shift is when each dancer finds a tucked-away ball of yarn, unwinding it and carefully laying out colorful lines across the floor into a complex web. Pinching and lifting up places where all four-color strings intersect, the dancers provide a tangible reminder of the places where many ideas cross, that beautiful locus of connection where the greatest art lives.

“How to think in the discipline of mathematics is very similar to how to think in the discipline of improvisational dance,” Cook explains in a post-show Q&A. She and the other dancers describe their processes inside the dance: choosing what to pay attention to and how to transform it, acknowledging that even an attempt at perfect equivalence is, in reality, a transformation, and how each body is symbolic of a mathematical process of input and output.

But how can an improvisational dance, so freeform and abstract, possibly be so similar to math, which seems so concrete and rigid? “When we think about mathematics we think about the result,” Finkel says, gesturing to the tangled mess of strings, the only tangible remains of the hour-long performance. But like the dance is to the string, the heart of math is the messy, playful creative process it took to get that final answer.

Math ∩ Art shows at CoCA through April 14, and again at Schack Art Center in Everett from April 26 to June 2. There is another performance of necessary and sufficient at Schack on May 4.