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The Slowest Wave

A groundbreaking collaboration is afoot involving New York City butoh dance company Vangeline Theater; founded by French-born butoh performer, choreographer, author, and teacher Vangeline; and a neuroscience team from the University of Houston, Rockefeller University, and City University of New York.  The collaborating parties are researching the impact of butoh on brainwave activity in a pilot study. I am in Houston, Texas, at the university’s theater watching the culminating butoh performance as a group of neuroscientists (visibly stationed in the wings) record and download the activity in the dancers’ brains. Simultaneously, a multi-media artist is “artistically” projecting the dancers’ real-time brain activity onto the backdrop of the stage. 

“The Slowest Wave” by Vangeline Theater. Photograph by Michael Blase

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Vangeline had been trying to generate interest from neuroscientists for almost ten years─applying for residencies, grants, and fellowships─but kept getting rejected. Then not long ago, Vangeline met two women neuroscientists Dr. Sadye Paez, Senior Research Associate in the Laboratory of Neurogenetics of Language at The Rockefeller University and Visiting Scholar at the Center for Ballet and the Arts at New York University, and Dr. Constantina Theofanopoulou, Associate Research Professor and Director of the Neurobiology of Social Communication Lab co-funded by Rockefeller University and the City University of New York. Already engaged in their own research on the neuroscience of dance, they agreed to advise Vangeline. Having recently attended a presentation given by Dr. Jose ‘Pepe’ Contreras-Vidal, Director of the Industry-University Cooperative Research Center (IUCRC) for Building Reliable Advancements and Innovations in Neurotechnology (BRAIN) at the University of Houston, about his studies with dancers, they introduced Vangeline to him. With that, everything fell into place.

The expressionistic dance-theater form butoh emerged in post-war Japan during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s against the backdrop of the war’s devastation. Japanese artists rejected Western as well as Japanese classical forms as they sought to redefine Japanese culture and identity with an embodiment of genuine experience. Characterized by extremely slow physical movement contrasting with intense or frenzied exertions, butoh draws on the duality of chaos and surrender to enable and enact processes of metamorphosis and transformation.

For the study, Vangeline choreographed a 60-minute work titled “The Slowest Wave.” The title refers to the delta brainwave─the slowest frequency in the brain that occurs when we are sleeping. This reflects her growing interest in learning whether the slow aspects of butoh induce delta activity in the butoh dancer’s brain.

EEG caps record brain activity during rehearsal and performance. Photograph by Andy Nguyencuu

The study uses scalp electroencephalography (EEG) to record information on the activity in the dancers' brains while dancing butoh. Contreras-Vidal, a neural engineer by training, has been pioneering research on dancers and musicians at his center for neurotechnology in Houston using cutting edge technology that allows for studying the dynamic brain in action (as opposed to lying still in an MRI machine). Contreras-Vidal explained that until fifteen years ago, there was no technology for accomplishing this. Even now, the technology is very expensive and requires specific training to use and process.

Each day during the study, two hours are dedicated to fitting the dancers (Azumi Oe, Margherita Tisato, Kelsey Strauch, Sindy Butz, and Vangeline) into EEG caps containing 34 sensors that record their brain activity during rehearsals and during the culminating performance. The dancers sit patiently while members of the UH BRAIN Team (Derek Huber, Eric Todd, Jose Gonzalez España, Oscar Jones, Shantanu Sarkar, and Dr. Mauricio Ramírez Moreno) apply the caps injecting syringes of electrolytic gel into the sensors. A tangle of connecting wires protrudes from the base of the caps and these along with two small transmitters are packed with insulation into a typical travel neck pillow, which the dancers wear. The caps with the tiny, blinking green lights at the sensor sites make for a Star Trek look.

Measurements are not only taken while dancing, but also while performing a set of control tasks such as walking, vocalization of a list of words—some making sense/some not, spontaneous laughter, sneezing, yawning, five-minute meditation, marking parts of the choreography in an emotionally-detached state, and raising right and left arms and legs (to determine where impulses originate). Theofanopoulou, who designed the study, wrote its scientific protocol, and supervised the execution of these control tasks, explained that they will use measurements of these control tasks to compare with brain activity while performing butoh.

Contreras-Vidal, a noted trailblazer in the field of robotics engineering, is particularly interested in “intention.” He feels that there are specific aspects of butoh─the almost still, extreme slowness─that can provide an expanded window into the time between impulse and action. Contreras-Vidal shared that they can detect the intention to perform hand movements before they occur. He explained, “It makes sense because we think and then we do. Our brain is always ahead of us. Now we are applying this concept not only to hand movements, but to the whole body−developing brain-machine interfaces (robotic exoskeletons) to help people with disabilities from stroke and spinal cord injuries.”

“The Slowest Wave” by Vangeline Theater. Photograph by Michael Blase

The choreographic structure of “The Slowest Wave” was informed by the protocol established for this pilot study. Vangeline shared, “As we defined the protocol, I choreographed the piece so that each section corresponds to a specific type of butoh that we wanted to measure─set choreography, improvisation, the slowest type of butoh, and specific types of technique. So I choreographed the entire piece based on the protocol. I’ve never done this before. I don’t usually build a piece thinking in that section I’m going to have this type of technique.”

Vangeline also invited her long-time musical collaborator Ray Sweeten to compose the score incorporating techniques of brainwave entrainment─a mechanism by which the brain naturally synchronizes with certain patterns, sounds, and frequencies and can be used to induce brainwave states such as deep relaxation or open emotion. Vangeline specified four sections of music encompassing specific types of sound─nature sounds, lower frequency sounds, lyrical sound, and calm resolution. As there is no metered rhythm, the dancers must synchronize their movements together using specific sound cues (pouring rain, bleating of a goat, a duck call).

Vangeline Theater premiered “The Slowest Wave” at Triskelion Arts in Brooklyn, New York for three nights in early October 2022, during which the New York-based members of the science team had a chance to observe the piece. Vangeline reported that each team member was excited for the possibilities of what could be measured as each one has particular interests that they want to investigate.

The piece is not, however, simply a bucket list of everyone’s research interests. Vangeline combines a variety of butoh techniques to create a thematic unity centered around waves. The piece opens with five female bodies lying on their sides on the floor in darkness. Two are clad in white and the other three are in dark-hued, futuristic body suits.

Over a hypnotic period of 12 minutes and 35 seconds, they slowly lift an elbow and then fully extend the arm toward the ceiling. The limb seems to float upward─empty of muscle and bone. The fingers then begin to melt downward releasing whatever energy had impelled the arm upward. Lying supine, the dancers arch their hips upward with the tension of a drawn bowstring to soft mechanical sounds and proceed into a slow motion roll. In unison, they stretch themselves into a series of angular shapes evoking cresting ocean waves until releasing all tension, they roll off as the stage is engulfed in darkness.

In the second section of the piece, the dancers, now upright, move about sensing and exploring the environment with creature-like physicality to a soundscape of twinkling tones. The explorative movements are suddenly punctuated with two dancers audibly skittering in a stop-and-go crabwalk. The three dancers in dark costumes coalesce in an animated circle of spiraling and spinning action as the two dancers in white descend to the floor to lie one on top of the other and roll downstage clasped in embrace. This significant act, highlighted by a dramatic flood of bright lights, disrupts the surrounding dancers’ activity, and shifts them into stationary figures with arms and torsos flailing (in slow motion) trying to regain homeostasis. They recompose themselves as a homogenous group and return to the floor, limbs treading in the air like seaweed. Finally their bodies relax into a slow rolling motion that concludes with a freeze of their arms arcing in wave-like forms as sounds of calm fade.

“The Slowest Wave” by Vangeline Theater. Photograph by Michael Blase

Vangeline described the different types of brainwave activity associated with different types of activity during waking and sleeping states─delta being the slowest wave during sleep. She is convinced that the slowest form of butoh (as in the initial, 12-minute arm lift) induces a delta brainwave state, essentially an altered state that has potential for healing and creativity. Having worked for years teaching butoh to incarcerated men and women at correctional facilities, she added, “You can’t have taught for twenty years and have seen the tremendous impact on and healing potential for people and not want to study this.”

Vangeline continued, “The rolls are a leitmotif used as a metaphor for the waves─brainwaves, waves of the ocean, the water in the body, and the feminine force.” She explained the origin of the rolls in what she terms “the secret behind butoh:”

“The whole show has Noguchi Taiso woven through it. Noguchi technique is a release technique developed by Professor Michizo Noguchi (1914-1998). He worked with the ideas that the body is filled with water and that muscle tension is equated with ego and aggressiveness. Having witnessed the horrors of the war, he wanted to investigate a type of body that was devoid of ego or violence. The slow Noguchi rolls on the floor that we do in the choreography are a technique from butoh training. Noguchi Taiso, meaning Noguchi gymnastics, is a method of muscle relaxation where you move initiating from the center while the rest of the body remains relaxed. This deep muscle relaxation induces a deeply relaxed consciousness. That state really interests me with its potential for human healing and creativity.”

Vangeline traveled to Houston in December for a pre-test. She performed the entire piece for Contreras-Vidal suited up in an electrode cap so they could assess challenges posed by the choreography and the equipment and adjust before the pilot study. For instance, the Noguchi rolling on the floor could be damaging to the caps.

During a Dance-in-Process Residency at Gibney Studios in New York City, the dancers made final preparations for their time in the lab. One dancer was six months pregnant. They needed to revise her choreography as she could no longer safely do the movements lying on the floor. She danced echoing the same sinuous quality with her arms as the other dancers, but instead, from standing or kneeling postures.

Vangeline informed the dancers of things to consider and integrate including a request that they meditate daily to ready their brains. She warned about distractions in the lab from activity, equipment, and noise. Finally, she underscored the importance of consistency during their performances within the lab environment.

Contreras-Vidal is not merely interested in functionality; he is genuinely motivated to investigate the creative brain, the expressive brain, the communicative brain. Hence, he has done studies on other dancers as well as jazz musicians to learn about neural synchrony between performers as they improvise or coordinate themselves together. He elaborated, “Having five dancers enables a study of social dynamics─showing how we anticipate, take turns, predict other people’s actions, deal with unexpected mismatches.”

Artistic visualization of brain activity generated by dancers, created by Badie Khaleghian. Photograph by Karen Greenspan

In Houston, multi-media artist Badie Khaleghian created mesmerizing artistic projections that were integrated into the performance. He took the real-time recorded brain activity of the dancers and ran it through a software program giving it a powerful artistic visualization that amplified aspects of the choreography. The intra-brain synchrony between the dancers became visible as intensifying, colorful bands connecting the brain representations of the various dancers.

Contreras-Vidal revealed genuine curiosity about creative thinking and communicative behavior. His commitment to art-science collaborations in pursuit of meaningful insight into how our activities shape us is bold and refreshing. He explained:

“You go to the theater to see a performance and you are a sponge−you are capturing all the sensory stimuli─visual, auditory, and otherwise. We process that input in the sensory areas of the brain and then send it to the front [frontal aspect of the cerebral cortex] and combine that with our memories, experiences, and context. We actually recreate our own version of what we see and hear. So we are artists ourselves. We are putting things together─but informed by our own experiences and understanding. So it’s not surprising that each person experiences a different thing from the same performance. The individuality is part of why this is so exciting. If we can figure out how our neural networks function, maybe we can do something to promote our creativity or help us get around our blockages.”

Of course, the recorded brain activity will be analyzed, and the results will be disseminated for others to use and benefit from. This innovative thinking is generating projects with the potential to produce breakthrough research that may translate into solutions to pressing medical needs as well as health and social policy. No longer some sci-fi fantasy, this is the dance of now!

Karen Greenspan

Karen Greenspan is a New York City-based dance journalist and frequent contributor to Natural History Magazine, Dance Tabs, Ballet Review, and Tricycle among other publications. She is also the author of Footfalls from the Land of Happiness: A Journey into the Dances of Bhutan, published in 2019.



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