Denis Pelli's Blog

Scientific study of vision and art, including reading and beauty.

“The Brodmann areas” a new ballet

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Dancers of the "Brodmann areas" ballet

Photo: Dancers Abbey Roesner, Morgan McEwen, Jace Coronado of “The Brodmann Areas: A New Collaborative Ballet from Norte Maar” Photo from The New Criterion.

The Brodmann areas,” a new ballet by Julia Gleich, was performed at the Center for Performance Research, in the Bushwick neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, April 12-15, 2012.
Photo-essay of “The Brodmann areas” by painter EJ Hauser:
You can see the “Crowding” section (5 min.) of the ballet

Choreography: Julia K. Gleich 
Design: Tamara Gonzales 
Dancers: Jace Coronado, Morgan McEwan, Abbey Roesner, 
Michelle Buckley and Dylan Crossman 
Music Director: Ryan Francis 
Produced by Norte Maar 
Raw footage by Dancing Camera  

I have been collaborating with the choreographer Julia Gleich. Five minutes of her new ballet, “The Brodmann areas,” are meant to be seen out of the corner of your eye. That part is based on my research on peripheral vision. It’s eerily beautiful.

[If you can’t access the video (on Vimeo, below), try this DropBox link instead:]

The standard static laboratory demonstration of crowding shows that, when viewed peripherally, a letter cannot be identified when surrounded by nearby letters. The surrounding letters must be moved apart to relieve crowding of the middle letter. The dancers brought this to life. At one point, you are fixing your gaze on Jace Coronado, who is at the left side of the stage, while three women stand together at the right side of the stage. They are “crowded”, visually combined by your eye into one jumbled object. Then the outer two dancers (Abbey Roesner and Michelle Buckley) move away, left and right, exposing the middle dancer (Morgan McEwen). When they are far enough apart (the “critical spacing’) Morgan suddenly can be distinguished. At that moment, Morgan does a pirouette. As the pirouette ends, the outer two dancers return, and they all coalesce, once again, into a single jumbled object. It’s beautiful, like a flower opening, revealing its parts, and closing.

I announced the ballet to my departments at NYU, Psychology and the Center for Neural Science, offering complimentary tickets to students. Twenty two students came. The students (5 postdocs, 8 phd students, 7 masters students, 2 undergraduates) came from five departments: Psychology 11, CNS 8, Economics 1, Law 1, Linguistics 1. The ballet has 17 sections, all neuroscience-inspired. Many students said they loved figuring out the neuroscience connections, many of which had eluded me. When I checked their inferences with Julia, the choreographer, she looked at me astonished, “Of course! Didn’t you know?”

The ballet is favorably reviewed in the The New Criterion (May, 2012).

The New Criterion was founded in 1982 by The New York Times chief art critic Hilton Kramer to apply a rigorous high standard to new art. For a quarter of a century The New Criterion, with a circulation of 6,500, “has helped its readers distinguish achievement from failure in painting, music, dance, literature, theater, and other arts.” (New York Sun quoted by Wikipedia).

All too often, interdisciplinary work falls between the two disciplines, meeting the standards of neither field. I think that interdisciplinary work should aim to meet the standards of both fields, and at least pass muster in one. The scientific paper that the ballet is based on was published in Nature Neuroscience. Just as scientific standards are enforced by peer review, through the authority of journal editors, artistic standards are enforced by art critics in newspapers and magazines. In science, we get reviews from the journal, privately. In art, the reviews are public. Thus, getting a favorable review in The New Criterion is roughly equivalent to getting a paper accepted in Nature Neuroscience.

Here is a two-paragraph extract from James Panero’s review in The New Criterion:
     ‘The most stimulating part of “Brodmann” came out of a section called “Crowding.” Denis Pelli, a professor of psychology and neural science at New York University, worked with Gleich on the choreography and even distributed a special program supplement before the performance. He instructed us to fix our eyes on the fluttering hand of the dancer Jace Coronado “no matter what” in order to enjoy the “splendors achieved by the other dancers in [our] peripheral vision.” For his day job, Pelli studies “object recognition, especially sensitivity to crowding.” His segment felt like the most controlled experiment of the evening.
     ‘Out of the corner of my eye, I can attest that the peripheral dancers appeared to amplify the movement of the “magic hand.” I look forward to Professor Pelli’s return to Bushwick to explain exactly why. If “In the Use of Others” was a celebration of what Bushwick had become, “Brodmann” gave direction for the road ahead. Science now mixes with painting, performance, technology, and sound to contribute to this neighborhood’s particularly innovative culture.’

How did this come about? I met Julia Gleich, the choreographer, after seeing a ballet that she created and danced in last spring, a year ago, in Bushwick. It was beautiful, so I stayed to talk to her about it. Since then, we continue to talk occasionally about dance and peripheral vision. In March she proposed to make one section of her new ballet on crowding, and invited me to all the rehearsals of that bit. I was astonished at how quickly she created a complete dance, starting from scratch. Julia and I hope to collaborate again.

(Thanks to Jamie Radner for editorial suggestions.)

Written by denispelli

May 5, 2012 at 1:54 pm

Posted in Events, Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. This design is incredible! You obviously know how to keep a reader amused. kcdecaeecfee


    May 23, 2014 at 9:46 pm

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