Essays on Science and SocietyGenome-Sequencing Anniversary

The Genome Dances

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Science  25 Feb 2011:
Vol. 331, Issue 6020, pp. 1027
DOI: 10.1126/science.1203459

As the work to map the human genome was finishing, I began to contemplate a performance piece exploring some of the meanings inherent in genetic discovery. As often happens, my research endeavors yielded too much data, and I soon recognized that a dance about the human genome could be a dance about religion, capitalism, policy, race, population control, or a dozen other topics. But after exploring the subject for a year through encounters with scientists, I settled on a format that framed the surprising commonalities of art and science and ventured to use the medium of dance as a science delivery system, setting up three topics: aging, ancestry, and perfection. The dance eventually premiered in 2006 as Ferocious Beauty: Genome, a work combining live dance with video projections that capture the faces, voices, and moving bodies of some of our wonderful science collaborators.

CREDIT: MICHAEL MAZZOLLA

So for me, having the genome in hand meant that scientists were ready to talk to an artist—an essential element in my ability to create this work. Amid sensationalistic speculations and Frankenstein scenarios, the geneticists, biologists, and ethicists I engaged seemed eager for a platform that would bring a personal voice, a sense of beauty and history, and a range of feeling to bear on this most human of topics. Audiences throughout North America have responded in kind: “I didn't expect it to be so emotional.” “I didn't realize how human scientists were.” “I expected to be confirmed in my hatred for science, but now I have to reconsider.” Along this path, I encountered amazing scientists pursuing knowledge with passion, creativity, and leaps of imagination that were akin to those of my own art-making colleagues. I found a commitment to embracing wide paradoxes, such as how we humans are both common and unique. I discovered both a profound interest in personal inquiry in the lab and a commitment to preparing the larger public to handle the outcome of all of this research. After 5 years of taking this dance to communities throughout North America, I have made many new friends in a field that is not so far from my own, although we have been trained to think we are separate.

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