Everett combines dance and science in Brain Storm
By Ashley Ulrich, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Monday, January 16, 2012
As the lights dimmed and dancers filed on stage, an enormous overhead view of a brain lit by neon hues transformed the backdrop of the Hopkins Center’s Moore Theater during the world premiere of Brain Storm, an Everett Dance Theatre production performed on Jan. 13 and 14. Brain Storm, which combines neuroscience and education with the arts, consists of eight performers and blends elements of video, dance and song.
“Every time she has a seizure, she smells something burning,” a husky man’s voice said from an overhead speaker as the performance began. “Now, if we can provoke that smell by probing the surface of the brain, we’ll find the source of the seizures.”
Mimicking a surgeon’s probe, a penlight flashed over the brain, simulating a medical examination.
“I can see the most wonderful lights,” a soft female voice cooed from another overhead speaker. “Did you pour cold water on my hand, Dr. Penfield?”
As the doctor and patient conversed, dancers from behind the screen acted out the exchange between the real-life Dr. Wilder Penfield — a late Canadian brain surgeon famous for mapping the regions of the brain — and his patient with an otherworldly air, despite the scientific nature of the dialogue.
The show’s premiere follows a two-year residency at the Crotched Mountain School — a charitable outpatient facility for patients with disabilities located in Greenfield, N.H. — and over a year of rigorous production work. The final product includes influences from discussions with neuroscientists and medical professions, as well as the performers’ personal experiences.
Combining all these elements “did not follow a direct route at all,” co-artistic director and Brain Storm performer Aaron Jungels said in an interview with The Dartmouth.
“We did a lot of research,” Jungels said. “We worked with scientists at Brown University, talking to them about their research of the brain. We did the residency at Crotched Mountain. We also ran a series of “brain cafes” in our hometown that became a sort of starting point for Brain Storm.”
These brain cafes — free public events held in Providence, R.I. — were events that the dance company used to interact with local community members. Many audience members shared stories with the Everett performers of their personal experiences with brain disease and trauma or those of friends and relatives, Jungels said.
Jungels co-founded Everett with his sister Rachel Jungels and his mother Dorothy Jungels in 1986, according to the group’s website. Rachel Jungels serves as co-artistic director of Brain Storm with her brother and also performs in the production.
“People from the community would approach us with their stories and ask us to do a piece about it,” Rachel Jungels said in an interview with The Dartmouth. “It was a great little series of workshops that brought together a lot of people from the community. They were usually sold-out events. People were really interested.”
One of the group’s goals in the production was to remove the stigma associated with psychotic diseases and brain traumas, Dorothy Jungels said. Everett received such positive feedback from the audiences at their brain cafes that the performers were optimistic for the same result in Brain Storm, she said.
“The audiences [in the brain cafes] were always moved, and not everyone has a relative or were suffering themselves from similar things that we touched on,” Dorothy Jungels said. “They were witnessing a story in a scientific and artistic way, so it was really a dialogue between both. It truly removes stigma and opens people up to discussing their stories.”
In rehearsals, Everett performers found traction in certain elements that then became building blocks for longer acts such as the use of rolling scaffolds, Dorothy Jungels said.
One of the earliest dances in Brain Storm symbolically depicted the struggle to communicate with the victims of brain disease and trauma, Dorothy Jungels said. In the number, three pairs of dancers perform in a ballroom dance, but they push and fall into each other, one dancer physically propping up the sagging weight of the other to lead the dance.
“It’s representative of a struggle, not a happy dance, not a ballroom dance, but a balance of forces really,” Dorothy Jungels said. “They’re pushing against each other, but they’re not walking away. They’re staying engaged.”
In many numbers during Brain Storm, dancers would act out the thoughts of an individual, sometimes working in harmony but other times tangled in a chaos of miss-firing signals. Occasionally, a performer would break out of harmony with the group and either attempt to sing or act out the chaotic effects of brain trauma or disease wreaking havoc in his or her brain. Some numbers were visually overwhelming, as the collaging of video imaging and live dance production provided intrigue on all corners of the stage.
At the end of the performance, the audience gave the performers a standing ovation, and most of the audience remained for the 20-minute question-and-answer session that followed the production. The audience’s questions were largely about the abstract representation of brain functions in the dances.
Prior to the shows on Jan. 13 and 14, the Everett performers were involved in a number of outreach and education events. On Jan. 12, there was a panel discussion that included Dorothy and Aaron Jungels, as well as Jeffrey Cohen, Stephen Lee and Thomas McAlister, all professors of neurology at Dartmouth Medical School.
Brain Storm was funded with grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, according to Aaron Jungels.