“I wanted to reassure myself Great White Sharks weren’t going to walk up Mission Street to Get Me.”
paraphrased from Pam Schaller – July 2006
Even before I started classes at EPI I knew I wanted to investigate the possible overlaps between the “performance” of science and theater. Along with the events I wrote about in my first post, I gathered a few “golden nuggets” from my life and reading, including a scene from “On Becoming a Biologist” by John Janovy, Jr.
I called my old boss, Frank, at the Steinhart Aquarium and asked if he could help with my project. He directed me to his colleague, Pam Schaller, who sat down with me at the temporary location on Howard Street and talked about what it was like to be a scientist, intuition in shark-rearing, how watching fish in aquariums is a legitimate science activity. Encouraged by this talk, I continued to dream about what my work was going to be through first few weeks at EPI.
In order to better understand the process of science I felt it was important to perform some. I went to the aquarium again with a sketchbook, and observed the collection to see what I could see. I found myself in front of a tank of juvenile fish and began to sketch. As I began a sketch, the fish I’d selected moved. This happened again and again until it dawned on me: the sudden movement of my hands as I began to draw was startling the fish. I was almost overwhelmed with the desire to shout my insight to the world, but I kept my peace and realized I had found the emotional core of my piece. What I didn’t know was how to transform this into a show.
At that time, it seemed to me that movement was the proper vehicle for sharing this idea. Despite a lack of technical dance training, I nevertheless believed motion and gesture would convey what I wished, influenced by my dance-theater teacher’s emphasis on choreographing with authentic movement vocabulary of the body, particularly impulsive responses to deep emotion. Although I’ve seen, choreographed, and performed in many dances since then, and taken classes and workshops, the mechanism by which movement makes meaning is no more clear to me. It’s a little bit piquant to reflect that this art form can remain mysterious even to its practitioners, but perhaps that’s part of the charm. So, armed with a belief that I had apprehended the basic performance of scientific discovery (observation, interpretation, dissemination) and a method of motivating gesture with loaded words, I created a dance phrase of two motions, a rapid duck down into a crouch, and a slight lean to the right. A theater exercise in one of my classes inspired me to walk around the space making random turns and throwing in the phrase whenever I felt like it. I felt this mirrored the stochastic nature of the observed phenomena. Then, at the end of the piece, I would stand center stage and perform the gesture in a spotlight, representing the moment of Understanding, when the phenomenon makes sense.
At the same time as I was working out a theory of performance, I was researching the animal that had inspired my insight, Paratilapia polleni, commonly known as Marakeli, and its cousins, the other cichlids of Madagascar. I interviewed Frank about the cichlids, since I knew he was involved with breeding and rearing them, and he told me about the fish and expressed some dissatisfaction that the new facility being constructed in Golden Gate Park had less space for breeding and research. I turned to the IUCN’s Red List to learn about the conservation status of the cichlids of Madagascar and learned they were all threatened in some way, like so much of Madagascar’s fauna.
More next week on “queering” this piece, and on the dynamics of presentation/representation in art.