Yearly Archives: 2008

Winners of the AAAS Dance Your PhD Contest

The results of the Science Dance Contest came out today! The results are really exciting, and more so because of how unexpected they were. I had picked out in my head who I thought was the best in each category (graduate student, post doc, and professor) but none of them won. I was struck most by the fact that the results may partly be explained by being driven by society’s expectations of how scientists should be.

The stereotypical scientist is wacky, odd, and eccentric, stuck in their own closed world at all hours doing who-knows-what with complicated machines. The winners of this contest really seem to reinforce these stereotypes – a little goofy, a little bit of fun, a little quirky. I find it fascinating that the results seemed to reflect the viewers as well as the videos. It seemed to be a lot about how people want to see their scientists.

I was most impressed with each video’s level of commitment in their own way, and as a viewer, felt a little like a spectator staring into a fishbowl at this odd little world (even for me, as a grad student). These videos went admirably beyond the level of duty to show it.

I’m glad that this competition didn’t set the precedent that you needed the backing of a dance company in order to win. All you need is passion and some brains, right? I suppose that’s true for a lot of things.

It’s funny how there’s a public curiosity about the insular world of scientists and science, where communication to the nonscience world is difficult and the science is often misunderstood. I also believe that this is driving the interest in this competition – a way to view this oddity of a world and to understand science without long scientific terms. It’s no wonder that many think that this is a good teaching tool.  Or is it the joy of seeing people, anyone, outside of their comfort zone?

So without further ado, I present to you the winners:

Graduate Student: Sue Lynn Lau’s “The role of vitamin D in beta cell function”

That sun is awesome.

Post doc: Miriam Sach’s “Cerebral activation patterns induced by inflection of regular and irregular verbs with positron emission tomography. A comparison between single subject and group analysis”

Professor: Vince LiCata’s “Resolving Pathways of Functional Coupling in Human Hemoglobin Using Quantitative Low Temperature Isoelectric Focusing of Asymmetric Mutant Hybrids”

But more importantly, my picks :)

Graduate student Lara Park’s “The role of folate in epigenetic regulation of colon carcinogenesis”

Professor Rachelle Gaudet’s “Structural analysis of phosducin and its phosphorylation-regulated interaction with transducin beta-gamma”

I love the explanation of this as well – the two dancing partners represent two proteins in the eye that are important for light adaptation. When the eye is flooded with light, the two proteins bind together and interact; when in the dark (the darkened front of the stage), the protein is unbound and dancing solo. Finally, the interacting protein degrades (my favorite part) when the guy keels over and dies. 

Oh, and of course, the funniest:

For the rest of the videos, click here. I was really impressed with the breadth of entries, from aerial circus to “hip hop”. :) Here’s my entry with the background on my video. Thanks for the all the encouragement, kind links and blog endorsements!!

UPDATE: I just got more information about the judges. The judges included the three artistic directors of Pilobilus Jonathan Wolken, Matt Kent, and Emily Milam Kent (I’m cringing right now that these amazing dancers saw my video but too late I suppose), the three winners from last year’s competition, and three scientists from Harvard University. Interesting, there’s actually a science connection with Pilobilus – Pilobilus is named after a fungs that co-founder Wolken researched in his father’s biophysics lab.

What do you guys think about the winners? Other entries?

Other links:

San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker on DVD

Psst. Guess what just went on sale on Amazon today? (Ok aside from Wall-e)  San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker! This will also be aired on PBS on December 17. I can’t find anything on the PBS Great Performances website, but I’m sure it’ll be up soon. The cast includes Maria Kochetkova and Davit Karapetyan in the central pas de deux, with Vanessa Zahorian as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Damian Smith as Drosselmeyer. If anyone can point me to a full cast list, please let me know. Although it’s great having the DVD of it, there’s nothing like seeing it live. A little girl behind me screamed at the Mouse King and gasped when the tree grew. Too funny and so adorable! Here’s my review of it last year.

San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker. Click here for tickets.

Review: San Francisco Ballet in Orange County

All photos © Erik Tomasson

Lorena Feijoo and Joan Boada in Possohkov’s Fusion. © Erik Tomasson

After too long of a hiatus, I finally got a chance to see my beloved San Francisco Ballet on their American Tour in Orange County this weekend. After hearing all the rave reviews in the other stops on their tour, I was curious to see how the company looked after the summer. It was fun to see many of the men sporting spiffy new haircuts, and even though it’s late in the tour with only one more stop after Orange County, the company showed no signs of wear or tear and looked absolutely phenomenal.

I had previously seen Possohkov’s Fusion and Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour at the opening night of their world premiere back in April, and in the few months that have passed, the pieces looked like completely new pieces. For both dances, the choreography had seeped more into the dancers’ pores, where the movements looked more instinctual and were performed with more of a natural flair compared to opening night. In Fusion, resident choreographer Possohkov has his finger on the pulse of the company, where the dancers looked like they were born to dance this piece. Despite some structural issues I still have with this piece with the two groups of opposing dancers (the whirling dervishes and the contemporary costumed dancers) integrating cohesively into one dance, with every whirling turn to every sensuous hip wiggle, each movement was sold to the eager and captivated audience. The overall effect was hauntingly mystical, yet complexly modern.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Benjamin Stewart in Fusion

Vanessa Zahorian in Fusion

Bathed in a warm glow, Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour was especially breathtaking. You can almost hear Wheeldon working the steps, trying new things, and reinventing movements and poses. But rather than spiralling into an esoteric multilayered analytical mess, Wheeldon as a master sculptor shapes the steps into something more than the sum of its parts. There’s delight at every corner. Lilting quirks punctuate the gently nimble music by Vivaldi and Ezio Bosso. Wheeldon’s invention worked especially well in the ensemble dancing, where different groups are set up against each other, each group quickly melting into the next and culminating in a triumph with the dancers swirling around each other in a circle. There’s a pas de deux with the lead couple, danced by Katita Waldo and Damian Smith that tripped along charmingly, with Waldo’s leggy glamour and Smith’s unwavering strength. A recurring motif with two male dancers, Garen Scribner and Martyn Garside, burst with lithe agility and vivid sensuality. Scribner was his usual self with his clean lines and striking stage presence. I had to look up Garside, a dancer I didn’t initially recognize, as he stepped up to match Scribner’s presence with his eye-catching dramatic authority and fiery abandon. Some of the pas de deux (what is plural of pas de deux?) especially in the slower ones had the drawn out feeling of a measured awakening that evolved over time but never resolved, still maintaining Wheeldon’s inventiveness. The overall effect was a joyful and richly layered enchanting journey of a sunny, warm world that was winningly the audience favorite of the night.

Maria Kochetkova and Joan Boada in Within the Golden Hour

The program ended with an about face with Balanchine’s Four Temperaments. Set in a stark setting with severe black leotards and simple background, the atonal pulsing music by Paul Hindemith propelled the physicality and the sharp angles of this piece. The overall effect is cool, detached, and a “better than you” distance that makes this piece in my personal opinion, a piece to be respected and admired but difficult to love. There’s lots to think about however, as the evening’s theme of invention continues. The Four Temperaments which premiered in 1946 is so forward thinking that one could easily guess that this piece was made this year. Loosely based on a theme and variations with each variation based on the four humors of the body (black bile, blood, phlegm, and yellow bile whatever that is), these associations with the human body are hard to visualize. A group of four girls (representing the four temperaments?) repeatedly make an appearance as an aloof and unrelentless army of Fembots in leotards, pushing forward with razor sharp pointed feet. My favorite variation was Phlegmatic, with Pierre-Francois Vilanoba in the foreground of these four girls, carving out his presence in space and time with his long sinuous limbs. Pascal Molat flew as the soloist in the Melancholic variation, and Lorena Feijoo and Tiit Helimets created a whirlwind of energy in the Sanguinic variation. In terms of audience response, this 180 degree turn in the mood seemed to catch everyone off guard as the ready applause died down a bit, but perhaps everyone was deep in thought rather than on reflex emotional response. The evening ended with an overwhelming presence of the entire ensemble dancing with hard edged precision, led by the polished Sofiane Sylve.

San Francisco Ballet with Pierre-Francois Vilanoba in Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments.

In all, this was a very long way of saying that San Francisco Ballet overwhelmingly succeeded in showing the audience that ballet is not merely a showcase of tricks, but a complete intellectual and emotional experience that is as diverse as it is deep. It was in a series of Pascal Molat’s entrechats near the end of the night that I realized that I hadn’t seen a fouette or the usual ballet applause-generators, but all the steps were seamlessly incorporated artistically into generating a mood, an emotion, a thought. This is a huge testament to the skill of the company and their ability to completely transport the audience into worlds unseen, and I can’t remember the last time that I found a ballet performance so complete and thrillingly satisfying. It’s also to San Francisco Ballet’s credit that they seem to send their best dancers out on tour, which is a different approach from some ballet companies, leaving a trail of obsessive fans in its wake. The dancers have never looked better; there was a moment in the Wheeldon piece where Damian Smith, Pierre-Francois Vilanoba, and Joan Boada were merely standing in a line in an easy fourth position. There was something about their similar build and jaw-dropping stage presence that was simply awe-inspiring. I’m also sure that pride in my hometown ballet company and the long hiatus added to my enjoyment as well. What a perfect way to officially end San Francisco Ballet’s 75th anniversary with a national tour that sets its stamp on the dance world as a pioneer and leader in the world of contemporary ballet.

San Francisco Ballet stops in Washington D.C. next, November 25-30 as the last stop of their American Tour. Be sure to catch their Giselle!! Here’s my review of SFB’s Giselle.

Other reviews:

UPDATE: In the spirit of innovation and as a result of a conversation I had with a friend, I decided to write up reviews for Fusion and Within the Golden Hour in haiku (in the loosest syllable definition of the word). For what it’s worth, enjoy.

For Fusion:
Shadowy mystique
A sharp breath caught in midair
Surrendering blur

For Within the Golden Hour:
Mercurial flow
Trusting hands, we melt as one
Gently lilting waltz

Proposition 8 and The Color Purple

Everyone knows that I hate talking about politics on this blog but in this instance, I really can’t keep my mouth shut on this one. My friend who’s a Sacramento news anchor just called me to see if I knew anyone who she could quote on the evening news tonight, and I did some research. The artistic director of the California Musical Theatre in Sacramento has donated $1000 in support of Proposition 8. I find this highly ironic/confusing/depressing, considering the current production that is playing there includes a lesbian love storyline in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.

Read more here and here from one of the writers of Avenue Q who spoke with the artistic director himself, which will be playing at the CMT this spring.

UPDATE: Scott Eckern quits! A bit of a shocking turn of events. I attended The Color Purple last night at the California Musical Theatre, and not only was it a really full house, but there was a small group of protesters almost a block away after the performance with “No on Prop. 8″ signs. I went not to support the artistic director’s actions, but to support the theater community as I always do.

ABT II On Tour

ABT II breezed into the Mondavi Center on Friday night, bringing a refreshing breath of youthful exuberance with it. ABT II is the training program for the world famous American Ballet Theatre, with its pick of the most promising ballet dancers in the world. It’s a great look into the future of ballet and its upcoming stars, with everyone between the ages of 16-20. A well rounded program was offered, showcasing both the strengths of the small company as well as showing the world how they can handle difficult (and diverse) repertory. The small company took huge risks as they can afford to with its talented roster, but as with all risks, some worked better than others.

The biggest success of the night was Jerome Robbins’ Interplay capitalizing on the company’s youth, with its whimsical concept of kids at play. Dressed in bright primary colors suggesting youth from the very beginning, a boy waves to another. A sense of playfulness pervades as the dancers constantly relate to each other, with boys playing leapfrog and other childhood games, with lightning quick moves and offbeat surprises. A competitive spirit adds to the fun, as Joseph Gorak shows off his langorous lines, an arresting stage presence, and a level of artistry seen more in more experienced dancers. A collaborative group chemistry completes this fun romp to perfection.

The rest of the program worked on many different levels, but a part of my problem is that I unrealistically expected it to be a mini-ABT. Their infectious energy withstanding, the performance was still riddled with tenuous turns, a few nail-biting slip ups, and a whirlwind of difficult

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technical steps without shape or direction. This however undoubtedly will be ironed out with performing experience and the passage of time. Balanchine’s Allegro Brilliante was a courageously daring endeavor; its difficulty and the effort it required was unfortunately visible as steps were whipped out at breakneck speeds with the transparent intent of getting them over with, instead of responding organically to the music. Despite the piece’s technical difficulties, the soloist Sae-Eun Park was a long-legged wonder, with a lightness and a pleasing airiness in her dancing, with Jose Sebastian was her noble partner. The Swan Lake Act II pas de deux and the Don Quixote pas de deux followed in the second half of the program, with a very sassy performance by Meaghan Hinkis in Don Quixote. Petipa’s Carnival of Venice closed the program showcasing the ability of this group to tackle classical repertory, which brought the evening to a celebratory end.

This group offers great hope for the future of ballet, with flashes of brilliant artistry peeking through already at such a young age. It was a great way to experience a top notch ballet company outside of their home state of New York. And Helgi, can we bring Joseph Gorak home for Christmas?? That would be wonderful. Newly hired Isaac Hernández joined San Francisco Ballet recently from ABT II.

Hm, this picture doesn’t look like ABT II but it’s listed that way. Pretty pose, no?

ABT II continues their tour. Click here for their website.

Mondavi Arts

San Francisco Ballet in Orange County

Lily Rogers and Daniel Deivison-Oliveira in Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments. © Erik Tomasson

Wow, has this week crept up on me or what! There’s lots to come, but the thing that

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I’m most excited about… the chance to see San Francisco Ballet again!! Do you THINK that I’m excited?? I will be attending their stop in their American Tour in Orange County next week, so be sure to check it out. They perform at the Orange County Center for the Performing Arts November 11 – November 16. Click here for tickets.

Program A (November 11, 13, & 15 at 7:30pm; and November 16 at 2pm)
Possokhov: Fusion
Wheeldon: Within the Golden Hour
Balanchine: The Four Temperaments

Program B (November 12 & 14 at 7:30pm and November 15 at 2pm)
Tomasson: The Fifth Season
Morris: Joyride
Elo: Double Evil

Other links:

Sondheim’s Assassins, the American Dream, and the recent election

I couldn’t help but to wonder if recent election results dampened the urgency of the message in Sondheim’s Assassins, as I watched the excellent production put on by Sacramento’s Artistic Differences. This musical explores the seedier underworld of American history, focusing on the motivations of people who have attempted, successfully or not, to commit the most egotistical of crimes, to kill the most powerful person in the world. In the land of opportunity, these characters highlight the doubt in the American dream that everyone gets the same chance to be great, and shows that this isn’t accessible to everyone, including immigrants, outcasts, and young people rejected by their family. Obama’s recent election softens this message a bit because he proved that anyone CAN be president. I still found the message to be extremely current especially for a musical written many years ago.

To fight against the creed, “living lives of quiet desperation”, these men and women claw and clamor to make themselves important in their own way. As an audience member, it’s unsettling to be able to relate to these characters at all in their fight to be heard. I am in awe of Sondheim and his courage to even question America’s greatest virtue, freedom, to make the statement that a completely free country includes living with the people who exercise their freedom to kill.

Other links:

  • News Reviews review
  • Sarah Vowell’s excellent book, Assassination Vacation – I’m not much of a history buff myself, but Vowell makes history interesting and very very funny. Find out which assassin was a member of a sex commune who could never get laid. I wish Vowell had been my history teacher.
  • Assassins (2004 Broadway Revival Cast), with Neil Patrick Harris, Michael Cerveris, Denis O’Hare, and James Barbour.

Artistic Differences presents Assassins. Runs through November 9. Click here for more info.

Choreographing *My* PhD Dissertation!

Promoting conversation between science and the arts
Dance Your PhD
My first choreographic effort

It’s so great to start with an idea, and to actually devote a lot of time, energy, money, a lot of hoping and crossing fingers to get a studio, to ultimately see the project come to completion. I stumbled across this event “Choreograping Your PhD” earlier this year, and just thought it was hilarious as well as very fitting – science and dance is a novel yet symbiotic relationship that could lead to a greater understanding of both fields. After all, science has been a subject of dance for a while now, from Balanchine’s Four Temperaments (based on the subject of physiology) to the more recent work of Wayne McGregor’s groundbreaking work in artificial intelligence, cloning, and the heart. Add to that the quirkiness of scientists on display doing something out of the ordinary, and you end up with NY Times coverage.

So here I present my soul to the world, my first choreographic effort as someone clearly out of my own element. Bottom line – choreographing is SUPER HARD, and my respect for ALL choreographers just skyrocketed. Forget about any body issues that I have; I can’t even think about that without cringing. And I definitely need to go to ballet class more; I really need to work on keeping my torso upright (my technique seems to get worse every time I watch the video). But I’m forcing myself to get over it because after all this work, and I can’t not upload it now. Remember as you watch it that normally I am a geeky sedentary scientist and not a trained dancer by any means. My ultimate goal is to be able to choreograph as well as Balanchine or Wheeldon can do molecular biology.

The Stats: for the five of us in the studio filming this video:

  • Collective education (earned and ongoing): one Masters in Computer Science, two PhD’s in Neuroscience, one PhD in Nutrition, one medical (MD) degree, one veterinary (DVM) degree.
  • Collective dance experience: 17 years and three months of ballet, one quarter of Renaissance dance, a smattering of swing experience.

The Science:

How does a developing nervous system form connections (synapses)? It’s directed by a series of molecular cues, which is the basis for my PhD dissertation. Our lab studies synaptogenesis and the molecular cues involved in synapse formation and differentiation that is essential for the developing nervous system. Specifically, our lab studies agrin, a heparan sulfate proteoglycan that has been widely studied for its synaptogenic effects at the neuromuscular junction. My project studies agrin’s function in synaptogenesis in the peripheral nervous system.

The Dance:

I represent a motile growth cone, an immature neuron searching for its postsynaptic partner to form a synapse. It starts out as a slow awakening, as I explore my environment. I liked the breathing quality of the awakening process, waxing and waning, breathing with the music. The other dancers represent potential postsynaptic partners, where I dance with them to see if they have the correct synaptogenic cues that dictates my final destination. I ultimately find my final postsynaptic partner (who also happens to be the only one strong enough to hold me in a dip :) ) and synapse with it.

I was disappointed that the resolution of the video wasn’t good enough to capture my leotard. It’s nude colored to represent an unmyelinated neuron – with myelin, I would have worn white, but without myelin, I’m basically membrane colored. I also drew on these open geometric circles to represent presynaptic synaptic vesicles, which unfortunately you can’t see.

The Experience:

Everyone learned everything within the span of two and a half hours – teaching it and communicating what I wanted was harder than I thought, but everyone picked it up really quickly. I loved that I did this together with my friends; we’re definitely not the best dancers in the world, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way, all but one of them graduate students themselves. It was also amazing to be back in a dance studio for a few hours. Many special thanks to the UC Davis Theatre and Dance Department who were so welcome in letting me use the studio on a rainy Saturday on such short notice; Professor David Grenke (former principal dancer with the Paul Taylor Dance Company, founding member of Armitage Ballet) couldn’t have been nicer nor more encouraging.

Some photos we took for fun -

In short: It was a great time! Thanks to everyone who made my vision possible, including my friends who helped bounce ideas around. It definitely wouldn’t happened without everyone’s support. So with great humility, I hereby present to you my final product. Be sure to watch through til the end.

Check out the other entries, as well as last year’s (live) contest, here. Please submit a video, especially if you are a post doc or a professor, because there aren’t too many videos in those categories. The deadline is Nov 16.

P.S. Speaking of science and the arts, who’s excited for the next four years?? I am!

Updated: Very special and very kind blog endorsements! Thanks to everyone -

Orion Weiss with the Marin Symphony

Last night, I found myself at the Marin Center for a performance with the Marin Symphony, conducted by Alasdair Neale. I’m really starting to discover the purpose of a community symphony and how it really serves it community. The theater was a big one but all on one floor, where I’ve never seen so much socialization occur across rows of people greeting each other. I couldn’t help but to wonder if they haven’t seen each other since the last Marin Symphony concert.

In last night’s performance, the clear performance of the night was the Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto with Orion Weiss that alone was worth the price of admission. I spoke about Orion Weiss before, when he performed at the house recital. But there, I felt like the environment didn’t serve his talents well – there were real moments of poetry, but there was also a bit of awkwardness and ‘muddiness’ in the piano sound especially in the Beethoven piece, possibly due to the unique circumstances of a living room performance or an unfamiliar piano or a new repertoire. Whatever reservations I took away with me at the recital however, Orion Weiss’ performance with the Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto shattered all expectations with a brilliant performance. The same lyricism that I heard previously in the house recital was there, this time to the fullest extent with an unassuming yet magnanimous confidence, contrasted with moments of almost startling vibrancy in the fast technical passages that still sang. Weiss also has this uncanny degree of quiet unguarded vulnerability in his playing that’s particularly extraordinary in today’s young cynical generation where performers often “give us a show” rather than show us their heart. This allowed the audience to have a personal experience connecting with Weiss through his music. I know that I write a lot of “positive” reviews (I’ve been accused of being “too nice”, many times!) but I think when I truly get excited about a performance, that will come across in my writeups. And this is one of those performances. The first movement was particularly spectacular, with its more free form style. I’m more familiar with the third movement which I learned a very long time ago, but the first movement was the vastly more interesting especially in this performance. This truly is a “can’t miss” performance, which will be repeated on Tuesday night on Nov 4, so be sure to check it out.

The concert opened with the magical Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. It opened tenuously with a woodwind chorale that was plagued with pitchiness and oddly imbalanced middle-heavy chords but most of all a lack of confidence every time the chorale made an appearance. But the soft, quick violins emulated fairies racing throughout a forest, and repeated donkey brays in the middle of the overture was whimsically emphasized. I officially nominate the overture to Midsummer Night’s Dream be entered into the repertoire of Trite and Overplayed Orchestral Pieces, which I find vastly more interesting than some others such as Don Juan and the Miraculous Mandarin Suite. The excerpts were followed by Mozart’s Symphony No. 36 in C major in a spirited rendition, but left the thought that this four movement symphony before intermission was too long as it seemed to go on forever. The orchestra was led with an easy charm and a good dose of wit by Alasdair Neale, who deservedly is the community’s pride and joy.

A quick word on the pre-concert talk with Julia Adam – she happened to be the choreographer who choreographed one of my favorite pieces in the New Works Festival earlier this year at the San Francisco Ballet, and it was a joy to hear her talk about the choreographic process and to watch clips of her choreography with her explaining it. I love the fact that her choreography is deeply set in the music, with a dollop of intellectual thought and quirkiness. She showed clips of her Midsummer Night’s Dream that she choreographed with the Marin Ballet, which was absolutely entrancing. And, fortunately for the Bay Area, Diablo Ballet will be performing it in March! I will definitely catch those performances.

Anyone in the vicinity of Marin County should really go and see this performance. Click here for more information.

A paparazzi shot of Orion Weiss practicing the Beethoven, before the general theater was open.