Dances with Cells

A unique interactive laboratory unites biology and choreography.

by Joseph Kleinschmidt


What: A Moving Cell Project Laboratory: They Blinded Me with Science (& Art!)

When: 4-5:30 p.m., Thursday

Where: Barker Center for Dance, 500 S 21st Ave.


Cost: Free

Dancers act as particles in an unlikely physical metaphor of cellular biology as the result of an ongoing collaboration between biomedical engineering professor David Odde and Black Label Movement choreographer Carl Flink.

Theoretical work in the science of biology and the art of dance intermingle to recreate the rapid entropy necessary for life.

A warehouse in Northeast Minneapolis holds a 20-by-20-foot chain-link cage, a metal framework meant to represent the membrane of a typical 10-micrometer cell.

Several dancers careen off each other, colliding like the 600-kilometer an hour particles within living cells.

With a structure the Ultimate Fighting Championship might commission, Odde observes the complex motion to gain a better understanding behind the mechanism of cells’ chaotic internal environment.

The Institute for Advanced Study initiated the unlikely pairing, beginning with Flink’s and Odde’s shared interest in catastrophes. Flink performed “Wreck,” a performance based on the experience of passengers aboard a sinking ship on Lake Superior. Odde took notice and the two eventually sought to implement similar disorder to visualize the processes of a cell.

After nearly three years of partnership, the unique method of human-scale “bodystorming” (like “brainstorming”) has allowed both parties to explore different avenues of creativity.

 “I get excited about the possibilities of learning how to run into each other,” Flink said. “It’s opening a whole new door to my creative research.”

Flink’s performance “HIT“ — an athletic and ballistic dance largely inspired by Odde and Flink’s work together — premiered last spring at Columbia College. Also, Odde’s recent research published in the life sciences peer-reviewed journal “Cell” was first tested via “bodystorming.”

Physically representing randomness also provides Odde with opportunities for inexpensive and rapid testing. Exploring tenuous or controversial hypotheses becomes much easier with the help of dancers acting as miniscule particles.

Relying on expensive programs, scientists often use computer models that may take months to write. Odde prefers the aesthetic of dance to reproduce microscopic interactions into a macroscopic laboratory. Saving time and money, “bodystorming” allows him to inhabit the very space he contemplates.

 “It puts you right in the middle of the action and makes it more of a visceral experience to participate in and learn from,” Odde said. Movers, as Flink likes to call them, can also communicate directly with Odde, unlike animated pixels on a screen.

Movers are given different instructions and guidelines, but Flink and his trained dancers sometimes change what Odde envisioned. Initially resistant to this, Odde now claims the mutations give him necessary insight.

 “It breaks down the barriers between us and our titles and suddenly we’re true collaborators,” Flink said. “It’s not just a collaboration to make art. It’s a collaboration to have a real dialogue between our disciplines.”

A graduate of Women’s Studies and Political Science at the University of Minnesota, Flink is no stranger to linking disparate fields. While he claims no true understanding of Odde’s science, he credits him with new and unusual views of movement.

Science requires imagination, especially in Odde’s initial stages of theoretical thinking. While Odde admits dance was the last thing to aid in his research process, he appreciates Flink’s unique understanding of the art.

 ”He changed my view on [dance]. His vision of dance is radically different from most people’s,” said Odde.

Odde and Flink’s upcoming demonstration at the Barker Center for Dance may not be as highly physical as their caged cell, but the spirit of their overlapping talents remains intact.

 “Where we connect is at that level of creativity,” Flink said. “[Odde] is in much more a creative space than one that’s driven by numbers and facts.”