There may not be sound in space, but Tower Dancers is bringing to life the song of the stars.
Hillsdale College’s dance and physics departments collaborated this year to create a visual and dance performance to music composed with the tones of pulsars, a neutron star producing pulsating radio emission, for the Tower Dancers’ spring concert running Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.in Markel Auditorium. Highlighting not only the talent and teamwork of the dancers, the dance also spotlights the research being done in the basement of the Strosacker Science Building.
“I work with ideas that can be abstracted,” said Holly Hobbs, visiting assistant professor of dance and choreographer of the modern-dance piece. “The pulsar is the distilling of something into the essence of an idea — what does it do? How can we reference that through music? Dance is a metaphor; we’re using movement to convey an idea, mood, and feeling.”
Created by Dawn Erb, an astronomy professor from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, the music composition “Lighthouses II,” named for the mechanism that produces the radio waves, uses the information from pulsar signals to create tones that form a non-metered composition.
“It’s very creepy, dark space music,” said Timothy Dolch, assistant professor of physics at Hillsdale who worked with Hobbs on the performance. “I think that’s kind of appropriate.”
The tones were collected with the radio telescopes in Puerto Rico and West Virginia that physics students at Hillsdale can control from a computer in Strosacker through the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves. Students use pulsar timing information to search for gravitational waves, which come from black holes.
Hobbs said she used the characteristics of pulsars in her dance, from ripples to represent pulsar waves to slower movements at the performance’s end to represent the slowing down of a dying pulsar.
“I think the idea is a point of light and the rotation of it,” Hobbs said. “I used a lot of rotation from the dance itself, based on the pulsars.”
Hobbs said she also used weighted movement to represent how pulsars are 100 trillion times denser than the sun.
While the music is not a typical composition, Hobbs said she thought the music was easier to use.
“I haven’t used non-metered sound for a large group before,” Hobbs said. “It made things quite easy. The dancers were able to take cues from one another rather than the music. I think it’s promoted listening to each other.”
Senior Corianna Baier said the dance excited her because she learned more about pulsars and it is something different than what she would normally perform.
“It’s more normal than I thought,” Baier said. “The sounds aren’t out of this world sort of sounds, so it’s kind of surprising to me that it sounds like noises you could recreate here but they’re actually from way out there.”
Additionally, the performance includes background optical and X-ray images of pulsar wind nebulae that add bright color and light to the showcase. While the pictures and videos come from a variety of places, one image in particular has a connection to Hillsdale.
A photo depicting the Guitar Nebula, which is produced by a pulsar, was taken by a group of scientists of which Dolch is a part. Dolch’s post-doctoral supervisor, Jim Cordes, at Cornell University discovered the nebula in the 1990s. Images of these celestial bodies are uncommon, and this one has been seen by only a small number of people, he said.
This summer, he and some students are traveling to Arizona in the hopes of capturing similar images in their research.
The project evolved from a conversation Dolch and Hobbs had last year following an event held by the Alpha Rho Tau art honorary on different perceptions of beauty. Dolch spoke about pulsars and shared “Lighthouses” with the group.
Hobbs said John Bohannan, a professor at Harvard University, has long inspired her. Bohannan started an annual competition that seeks doctorate degree candidates to turn their scientific theses into dance performances.
“I think this is a prime example of the liberal education,” Hobbs said. “I feel thankful I can collaborate with someone in the physics department. That benefits me artistically and the students.”
That collaboration has also attracted interest from colleagues at other institutions, as well, Dolch said, adding that Hillsdale’s smaller campus offers the opportunity for departments to interact and work together.
“I hope people get a sense of wonder, experiencing not just the abstract but the images, the music, and the dance all in time to really get a little piece of what’s out there,” Dolch said. “It’s an unusual way to present that, but it really encapsulates, on the one hand, being made to feel small and feeling insignificant in front of nature…and the radical otherness that’s out there and, at the same time, the beauty of the universe that shines through in all of this.”
Dolch and Hobbs will speak more on their collaboration before Friday’s performance at 7:30 p.m.