Dancing to the rhythm of quantum physics

Space. time. mind (above), a collaboration between NUS Chinese Dance and Beijing Dance Academy Youth Dance Company, pushes the frontiers of Chinese dance.
Space. time. mind (above), a collaboration between NUS Chinese Dance and Beijing Dance Academy Youth Dance Company, pushes the frontiers of Chinese dance.PHOTO: NUS CENTRE FOR THE ARTS
Sambhavna explores science through movement.
Sambhavna explores science through movement.PHOTO: NUS CENTRE FOR THE ARTS

The National University of Singapore Arts Festival explores the interplay between science, technology and the arts

Quantum theory and the arts may sound like unlikely bedfellows.

But the National University of Singapore (NUS) Arts Festival this year unites this odd pair, blurring the boundaries between the arts and science.

The festival partners with the Centre for Quantum Technologies (CQT) for its 11th edition, breathing new life into a mind-boggling branch of science - one that is concerned with minuscule particles such as photons and atoms - through art forms such as song and dance.

From March 11 to 26, more than 30 performances will take place at various locations in the university as well as at the NUS Baba House in Neil Road.

This year, the festival - themed Wonder - explores the interplay between science, technology and the arts through shows involving not just NUS students and alumni, but also professional artists from Singapore and the rest of the world.

Festival director Mary Loh says: "We wanted to give the students a bigger challenge this year. Working with quantum physics is like having a whole new brain. You have to go through the process of unravelling the theories for yourself."

The centre organised a seminar to explain key principles of quantum theories and students were then encouraged to do more research to develop their proposals, with staff from the centre available for consultation.

The centre director Artur Ekert, who is also the Lee Kong Chian Centennial Professor at NUS, says: "The quantum reality that lies behind our everyday world is quite magical and full of promise for new technologies, but people often don't explore these ideas because they get stuck thinking, quantum physics is too hard for them.

"When the physics appears instead as surprises in plays, film and dance, I think the audience gets to experience a little of the excitement and wonder that we scientists feel when we do research."

Those in the science and engineering faculties, who may not have had frequent exposure to the arts, are among the festival's targets, says Ms Loh. It can also expose those in the arts to the sciences, which are "cutting-edge and very relevant now".

Ms Sharon Tan, director of the NUS Centre for the Arts, says the festival has been an incubator. Some of the performances initially produced and staged at the festival have since been performed multiple times with Singapore theatre companies.

One is The Good, The Bad And The Sholay, which premiered at the 2011 NUS Arts Festival and made a comeback last year at the Esplanade.

This year, the festival opens with space. time. mind, a collaboration between NUS Chinese Dance and the esteemed Beijing Dance Academy Youth Dance Company that pushes the frontiers of traditional Chinese dance, with original work created in consultation with the centre.

Also exploring science through movement is Sambhavna, or Probability, by NUS Indian Dance. It weaves quantum theories with the classical Indian Bharatanatyam, expressing the behaviour of particles through precise, delicate movements. The performance is choreographed by the group's artistic director and Cultural Medallion recipient Santha Bhaskar, who worked with scientists at the centre.

Another production that crosses arts with science is the NUS Symphony Orchestra's Music For Curious Minds, which will draw parallels between the development of science and the arts.

Ms Loh says: "Quantum physics is not easy. It has been challenging to try and fully grasp the theories, but our intent was not for our students to become experts in quantum physics, but challenge them to respond to the theories through their art and not to be afraid when encountering the unfamiliar."


Festival highlights

Space. time. mind

What: This collaboration between NUS Chinese Dance and Beijing Dance Academy Youth Dance Company puts a physics-inspired spin on traditional Chinese dance.

Where: University Cultural Centre Hall, National University of Singapore, 50 Kent Ridge Crescent

When: March 11, 8pm

Admission: $22 to $29 from www.nusartsfestival.com

Now then again

What: Should Ginny (Munah Bagharib), a prodigy working in a quantum physics lab, give up her career to settle down with her childhood sweetheart Henry (Luke Kwek), a socially awkward physicist?

This show directed by Tan Shou Chen explores the trajectories life can take in a world with infinite possibilities.

Where: University Cultural Centre Theatre, National University of Singapore, 50 Kent Ridge Crescent

When: March 11, 8pm and March 12, 3 & 8pm

Admission: $25 and $29 from www.nusartsfestival.com

Sambhavna (Probability)

What: The performance, choreographed by NUS Indian Dance, by Cultural Medallion recipient Santha Bhaskar, captures the behaviour of quantum-scale particles through dance.

Where: University Cultural Centre Dance Studio, National University of Singapore, 50 Kent Ridge Crescent

When: March 18 & 19, 8pm

Admission: Free admission with registration at www.nusartsfestival.com

Purge

What: United Kingdom-based performance artist Brian Lobel explores how people today interact through digital media in this interactive performance- lecture based on his experience asking strangers to help him purge friends from his Facebook account.

Where: Performance Hall, Yale-NUS College, 16 College Avenue West

When: March 24 & 25, 8pm

Admission: $25 from www.nusartsfestival.com

Music For Curious Minds

What: The NUS Symphony Orchestra explores the parallels between science and music and how each field influences knowledge and expression in the other.

Where: University Cultural Centre Hall, National University of Singapore, 50 Kent Ridge Crescent

When: March 26, 8pm

Admission: $20 and $25 from www.nusartsfestival.com

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 23, 2016, with the headline 'Dancing to the rhythm of quantum physics'. Print Edition | Subscribe