Adeene Denton: Astrohumanist

I subscribe to Dance Magazine, the hard copy that comes in the mail. It is often a slim volume with beginnings of ideas that they delve into more deeply on their website, and many of the articles are aimed at students or young professional artists. Still I love it, because I learn a bit about commercial dance, and Broadway shows, health insurance and wage issues in the United States and, each month, what drives a particular creator or dancer.

Adeene Denton's short but compelling profile in a recent article about science and dance hovered off the page for me. A planetary geologist who is also a choreographer?

I contacted her immediately to be part of my Art + Science interviews. We spoke via Zoom in March 2020, during the early days of lockdown/social distancing/pandemic and it was an excellent way to launch into a startling and galvanizing stage for North America and far beyond.

Conversations like these -- though not broaching head-on the concerns of pandemics and the amazing anti-racist movement thriving across the globe -- are important because they delve into and value collaboration, imagination and a purpose beyond material success.

The intersection and interaction of art and science show a cooperation sometimes and someplaces thought to be completely impossible. Ultimately they are joined in pursuit of describing what it is to be alive. For Adeene, it is a balance of energies that make for clearer work in both fields.

You can read about her work here: http://www.adeenedenton.com/

Or just plunge in with us.

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LUCY: So how are you?

ADEENE: Doing ok. As well as can be expected, I suppose.

LUCY: It's lovely to meet you and thank you for doing this, especially at this wild time.

ADEENE: It's amazing to talk to you.

Adeene Denton

LUCY: Are you safe, healthy?

ADEENE: I'm good so far.

LUCY: I can't even remember what month it was from but when I opened the issue of Dance Magazine that you were in, I gasped. "I think I need to talk to this woman!"

I'm not a scientist at all so you will have to forgive me if I don't have the right words for your work  or if I don't understanding everything you might talk about.

Shall I plunge in?

ADEENE: Yeah. Let's do it.

LUCY: My first question is: what is your background in dance, where did you start dancing and all that?

ADEENE: I started dancing at the early age. I'm from south Texas, so I was in basic ballet and modern training since I was about three. I started going to Bates Dance Festival in high school. It completely broadened my perspective of what dance could be. It's where I saw for the first time Camille A. Brown and Dancers, Doug Varone and Dancers. I go to take their repertory classes I still think about seeing Doug Varone's company perform in 2011 on that tiny, tiny stage. It was amazing.

I love dance. It's so great.

Doug Varone and Dancers did "Lux" and I just lost it.

LUCY: His work is outstanding. The way he is so absolutely human -- himself and his choreography. You know, if you passed him on the street you wouldn't think "that's a dancer!" but then you see him move.....And this is what modern dance should be. That relatability.....

Did you want to go into dance professionally as well as science?

ADEENE: Yes and no. I was kindly told fairly consistently that I didn't have it and would not be a professional dancer. It was tough to take and honestly a lot of us who are professional dancers were told that and you just have to think "ok, thank you for the feedback". But at the time it definitely reformed my thinking. I needed to have a career in something and I fell into science as an undergraduate. I was still dancing heavily at the time. I did my undergrad in Houston at Rice, and I got heavily into the Houston dance scene, dancing with companies while I was an undergrad.

I always figured at some point. I would have to stop dancing, that it would stop happening for me. But it hasn't.

I got deeper and deeper into choreography in undergrad and as I moved into graduate school, choreography was a way to take the dance language and experience I had and process my experience of trying to understand the world around me.

LUCY: That's part of the starting place of a lot of my research -- how science and the arts are trying to describe the natural laws of universe in various ways and to various ends. Somewhere along the line of time -- some people say the Enlightenment -- the sciences and the arts got divided, though they work through similar processes: towards understanding the world around us.

Was it a natural evolution as you got deeper into your scientific field with your choreography or was there a revelation as you found how they inspire each other or..... or.....maybe I'm overstating that?

ADEENE: There are multiple answers I could give to that. I think there are ways we frame our journeys that look natural and make sense, when they don't necessarily. So that is why there's multiple answers to this

LUCY: Of course.

ADEENE: How to word this...in a way that would be the most useful......The answer is yes, the deeper I got into science, the more I started thinking more seriously about choreography not just in the kinds of things I was trying to say through choreography, but why I was trying to say them and how.

LUCY: I get that. The more you learn about the world, you realize what more needs to be said through art.

ADEENE: It wasn't that I wanted to make dances about science. I actually don't. I do science a lot.  Dance needs to be something else for me.

One of the unique experiences of grad school -- one that many people have -- is four years into your program you lose track of why you're doing it. A while ago, I made a dance about space exploration and I realized I love this [what I'm studying] despite everything. How can I use dance to excavate the motivation for why I'm doing what I'm doing? How can I find that motivation again?

Adeene Denton's Boats Leaving a Pale Blue Dot

LUCY: That's very beautiful. When I watched the clips of your choreography on your website: there was something, like I could see geological time within your work. Although that's a slight preoccupation of mine right now, so maybe I was ready to see that.

ADEENE: No, it's in there.

LUCY: But I felt I was watching people dancing, not ideas dancing. I'm curious in my own work how we can truly anthropomorphize these ideas that are very real but hard to fathom. Because that might make the people witnessing it care about the ideas more, by seeing dancers grapple with embody the intangible. It was really clear in your work. These are human beings absolutely. Not concepts.

The idea of going into a dance to excavate your motivation...that's brilliant. We can get on a hamster wheel with our work, just going, going, going -- and at some point it's not enough. We want to go deeper, or understand deeper what our purpose is, or might be.

ADEENE: There's comes a time when you meet with some level of visibility as an artist, and it's in the public, there's a pressure to just continually make art and then comes the corresponding "wait, but why? how?".  I have to make art but it also still has to be meaningful to me. It's been interesting to watch that happen to myself.

LUCY: It seems like there might be a parallel between that push always be creating in the arts and the pressures of publish or perish in science and academia -- you have to your ideas out there and to be the first to lay claim to an idea.

ADEENE: Yup. I can't recommend it.

LUCY: I appreciate your honesty about that. It's a pill you have to swallow, at least right now, but we don't necessarily have to like it.  I did a masters degree in history, nothing to do with dance or anything. I did it part time and was still dancing and performing all the way through. I got all excited to do my PhD and keep dancing and creating and all that. Then I realized "Hold on, how am I going to have my full dance career and do my PhD without it taking 20 years?"

ADEENE: It's hard. so hard. If you ever did want to do it....it's doable but....

LUCY: And added to my decision not to proceed was pressure and scrutiny of academia -- publish-or-perish, territorial colleagues, public critique. I realized I couldn't handle having a dual life with these same pressures and scrutiny from both sides, from academia and from performing arts. Not to mention, how do you train while potentially hunched in a lab or library?

Are you able to train in dance regularly?

ADEENE: I dance when I can. The only way I can do this is not to think of it as two jobs. One of them has to be a refuge and dance is the refuge.

LUCY: Beautiful.

ADEENE: Well, it helps that I don't get paid to do it. Currently operating out of a small mid-western town means I will never be paid to do it while I live here. When I was on the east coast I did produce dance that was compensated, but here it's not possible.

I train when I can and I train in ways that are meaningful to me. I mostly give myself movement prompts to mess around with. So that I remember not just how to move but the ways I think about physical space. That's what I lose quickly when I don't dance. The technique is always sort of there. I keep my body generally athletically trained, but being able to interact with space that's what I work on on my own.

LUCY: I've never really thought about it that way. The muscle memory is there, but it's the relationship to space, as you said,  how you are the space and how you move through the space....attention to that becomes increasingly important as you get further into your dance career. Not what you're doing but how you're doing it, how you're choosing to move through space. That sensitivity can get lost if not exercised.

ADEENE: Sometimes I feel if I stop dancing I'll never be able to start again. But when I do dance, I'm reminded that's not so. And that's good because when the work in science is high, dance just isn't possible.

LUCY: I understand that. There's always the impossible balance. For me it's when I'm rehearsing I don't have time to take class and train, and when I'm not rehearsing I don't have the money to train. Constant fluctuation.

ADEENE: So you just give yourself class in your apartment.

LUCY: Yup. One of the good things coming out the quarantine/lockdown/pandemic situation is the immediate response from the dance community -- free classes or classes by donation. I'm taking Gaga classes every day with teachers and dancers from around the world. It's a strange feeling of togetherness in ways that weren't happening before.

We're all together in this weird suspended animation right now.

I'd love to hear more about your particular area of specialization. Am I correct in saying you are a planetary geologist?

ADEENE: Yes.

LUCY:  I imagine it's very different from being a geologist on Earth-- in very practical ways. What the physical matter is and how you study something you can't visit in person. How did you find yourself in this field of science?

ADEENE: In my undergrad I was a history major and a geophysics major. To me those things are related. Not many people get it -- you probably will since you have a degree in history -- but the study of the history of the Earth on two very different timescales are what history and geophysics mean to me. I'm interested about both of them and how they play into each other.

When I was in my undergrad program I did an internship at Johnson Space Centre in Houston, and I got to go to a meteor crater in Arizona and met people who do geology on a planetary scale. It shifted my idea of what history is. I started as a history major but geology was blowing up the time scale f and then planetary geology blew it up even more. Space and what was possible -- the same physical processes that occur on Earth happen on the moons of Jupiter, even though it's ice. It blew me away. When I realized you could do that...I didn't really know anyone could do that as a job....I thought, "my god, I have to try."

The research that I do -- I used to work on Mars but I switched -- is on Pluto. I think Pluto is great, I always have. When New Horizons flew by Pluto in 2015, I was at the Johnson Space Centre and to be there and surrounded by professional scientists getting this information back for the first time. The feeling of looking at a picture of a planetary surface and thinking "what the hell is that?". I just think it's great.

I blow up Pluto. That's what I do.

To do this, I work with what are known as shock physics codes.

Enhanced colour global view of Pluto, taken when NASA's New Horizons spacecraft was 450,000 km away
image courtesy of NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI


LUCY: I was going to ask about that. I loved that terminology when I visited your website and I want to know more about what it is!

ADEENE: Sometimes in the literature they are referred to as hydrocodes because they are used to describe the super fast flow of material that acts like a liquid. They were originally developed in the 1960s to deal with responsive material used in detonation. I use codes designed for nuclear weapons but I use them to simulate blowing up planets instead.

Peaceful purposes. Though it feels very weird to think about where my codes come from.

LUCY: I'm sure it does. So how do you use these codes do experimentally?

ADEENE: When an asteroid hits a planet, it completely changes the planet's surface locally and globally, so it can act as a probe for what the planet is like in its interior.

If you look at pictures of Pluto it has that heart-shape on it. That's a giant impact basin, huge -- 15% of Pluto's surface. When an impact hits the surface, the shock wave will expand into the planet and it will do so as a perfect hemisphere. But the characteristics of the planet itself will effect how the shock wave and subsequent seismic waves expand. So some of the work I've done is thinking about when an asteroid is big enough, as those waves expand the entire planet will act as a lens, just like a light, and focus that energy to the opposite side of the planet.

On Pluto we have observed features that are directly opposite to the impact basin and by trying to match up those features by simulating the impact, I'm basically doing fake seismology. I'm simulating straining the internal structure of the planet. I'm learning its tectonic history. It's a lot of fun. I just blow up Pluto a lot.

LUCY:  We earthlings are capable of extraordinary creativity. We created nuclear weapons, but we can use the same technologies to discover crazy wonderful things about the universe.

ADEENE: There's so much we can learn.

LUCY: Where do you see yourself after your PhD? Do you have an idea? A dream?

ADEENE: That depends. Everyone feels a lot more precarious these days. Academia is tough...

I submitted my astronaut application a couple of days ago.

LUCY: Wow. Amazing!

ADEENE: I fully expect to get rejected with extreme prejudice. But it's been a dream of mine for a while so I'll shoot the astronaut application out into the ether. Probably the next round I will apply again and be more successful. I now just meet the minimum requirements.

I'll probably continue in academia for awhile. It is the best way to combine the research that I do with continuing to dance and make dance. Academia is the best place to be, as more and more universities are leaning towards interdisciplinary work.

Adeene Denton's Breaking the Roche Limit

LUCY: It should be thrilling for a university to have someone like you, as you are interdisciplinary in a way you don't usually see. Often it's the visual arts that get in there with history and science etc.  But with what you are doing, as you've said, there's so much that can be done by bringing them together, in whatever way.

I am also really interested in your "astro-humanism". If it's a movement I'll join. I want to be an astro-humanist.

ADEENE: Sure. Join!

LUCY: How did you come to that word and what does it mean to you?

ADEENE: The word specifically comes from Sydney Skybetter -- have you heard of him?

LUCY: Yup.

ADEENE: When I was at Brown [University], and I would talk to Sydney about my work and what I wanted to do. He described what I was trying to do as astro-humanism. I loved it.

So I guess what it describes is my idea that space exploration is and will be a difficult concept to unpack. I'd love to hear your thoughts on it too. There are so many different ideas on how it will go. Regardless of whether you think going to Mars is possible in the next 30 years or not -- I don't really think it is -- the technology to get people to Mars will happen.

What I'm interested is what happens when we take that next step -- not just life in low earth orbit, Scott Kelly and Christina Koch up there for almost a year -- but further. The journey to Mars itself is a year.  A space journey that that will take years....we have to think about what it is we value and how our culture will transform when we're not tied to the Earth itself. What is it about humanity that will change and what will stay the same?

LUCY: Ah, of course. Because we are a terrestrial species, very literally. When we de-tether from the planet for long-term, how will we change? Not just physically but socially, emotionally, culturally.....

ADEENE: That's what I'm interested in. I truly, honestly believe we will always dance. It will look different because you can't interact with space the same way without gravity.  Lack of gravity completely transforms everything about how we interact and yet we'll still dance because it forms such a critical role in our society. I like thinking about that.

That's the kind of thing that gets me really excited about space exploration. I like thinking about how we will keep being human though we'll probably change a lot.

LUCY: That is quite moving. I think a lot about these kinds of things and also from an existential  perspective. I really believe that both science and art will continue in us, with or without a commercial value. We're driven by curiosity in art and science. We will always be curious.

What dance is will change and evolve in space -- just as it has on this planet. And people will always do science because it's a way to focus the curiosity. As long as people are curious....and I do think curiosity is a fundamental, genetic aspect of our species, and many other species.

I feel like this relates to what you were talking about in regards to dance training: not just keeping the technique alive, but keeping the relationship to space attuned. That question of what humanity will be as we go further into space is a really important question to ask before we're even able to get to Mars. We need to start asking and considering this now. Once things have already happened and changes are happening too subtly or quickly to track.....

ADEENE: I completely agree. I think about this so much... They have movie night on the International Space Station. There's no up or down, so they could set it up however they want, but they always strap themselves down like they are sitting on a couch with their friends at home.

Movie night on the ISS, photo courtesy of ISS National Lab

That just really gets me. The combination of nostalgia and a need for connection.....we're going to keep figuring out ways to be ourselves as we move forward. That makes me happy and hopeful. I need that.

LUCY: We all do.



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more on Lucy Rupert's choreographic and artistic works HERE

This Art + Science interview was made with the generous support from the Chalmers Family Fund Fellowship, managed by the Ontario Arts Council and from the Canada Council for the Arts Professional Development program.


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