Q&A: Emily Coates on her upcoming film ‘Dancing in the Invisible Universe’

Choreographer, dancer and scholar Emily Coates discusses the development of her film, which experimentally explores the connection between dance and physics.

by Jessica Li | 7/23/21 1:05am

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Courtesy of Teresa Duane

As a part of the Hopkins Center for the Arts’ “Big Move” series, choreographer and scholar Emily Coates showcased her work-in-progress film called “Dancing in the Invisible Universe” in the Black Family Visual Arts Center. It was followed by a Q&A with the audience. 

Coates is currently partaking in a developmental residency at the Hopkins Center, which according to Hopkins Center academic programming director Samantha Lazar is a “relatively new” introduction to the center.

“We are invested not just in presenting finished works but also in the development process,” Lazar said. 

As a project that is still being produced, “Dancing in the Invisible Universe” has the opportunity to receive feedback through this residency and continue to refine and explore. It depicts the intersection of dance and physics, which fits in perfectly with the current mission of the Hopkins Center, according to Lazar. 

“The Hop is really interested in arts integration, integrating performing arts with all different academic disciplines across campus and beyond, especially ones that seem disparate… [such as] hard sciences and dance,” she said.

Coates comes from a background in dance, having performed with the New York City Ballet, Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project, Twyla Tharp and Yvonne Rainer. She is now a professor in the Practice of Theater and Performance Studies at Yale University, where she created the dance studies curriculum.

Her choreography has been showcased in the Baryshnikov Arts Center, Ballet Memphis, Carnegie Hall, Danspace Project, Works & Process at the Guggenheim, the University of Chicago and Yale University Art Gallery, among others. 

In 2018, Coates collaborated with physicist Sarah Demers to write the book “Physics and Dance.” After working at the International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven, Connecticut with Mary Lou Aleskie, Coates approached Aleskie about her new performance work, which serves as the companion to the film “Dancing in the Invisible Universe,” when Aleskie became the Hopkins Center director. This has allowed Coates to continue work on the film throughout her residency in Hanover. 

In an interview with The Dartmouth, Coates shares more about her film and her experience in the arts.

Can you share a bit about what “Dancing in the Invisible Universe” will look like?

EC: The film is a sister work to the performance project I’m developing while in residence at the Hopkins Center this summer. The film is set in a 21st century physics laboratory — Wright Laboratory at Yale — and the performance project engages with 19th century astronomy and the Shattuck Observatory at Dartmouth. In both works, I’m interested in the ways that art-science collaboration unfolds — the dynamics, insights and hiccups, the cross-talk and moments of conflict or agreement and the very humanness in the exchange. 

With a background in dance, followed by writing and speaking, how did you make the transition into film, and what was that transition like?

EC: I started out dancing professionally at 15, and eventually needed to begin making my own work and finding my own voice to augment my presence as a mover and performer. Writing was key to this transition for me. I’ve taught a ‘dance on film’ course for many years that looks at their intersection from the late 19th through the 20th century, and it was time to jump in myself.

How has being a dancer influenced your approach to film?

EC: The scenario and editing for the film is heavily informed by my performance background. I’m working with a visually astute and versatile filmmaker, John Lucas, who weaves in his own craft. Our savvy sound designer, Evdoxia Ragkou, is, like me, making her film debut from a background in theater. The film is a cross-hatching of our performance and film languages. 

How did you conceive of the idea for “Dancing in the Invisible Universe”?

EC: I came up with the premise for the film while I was an artist-in-residence at Wright Laboratory. I became curious about what other experienced artists would see and do in collaboration with the scientists at the Lab, and the idea to capture spontaneous collaborations on film was born. I was fortunate in that such amazing dance artists and scientists said yes to the experiment!

Since the film that is shown is still a work in progress, what is next for this project?

EC: We will tighten it further and hopefully then circulate the film in dance film festivals. You can never repeat the same live performance twice, but with film, you can keep working on the same performance until it feels just right. 

What has been one of your favorite aspects of the film creation process?

EC: Discovering the power of editing. You can do anything with time. We don’t have that same technical capacity, exactly, in live performance. I hope the audience will have their curiosity piqued, to want to learn more about the beauty and rigor in both disciplines.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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