The University Record, April 15, 2002

Science becomes dance in ‘Nascent Emotions’

By Michelle Begnoche
News and Information Services Intern

Joshoa Sutton (standing) and Abigail Sebaly (sitting) react to the emotional and physical roller coaster of pregnancy. The actions of the onstage fetus and placenta are created by Alexandra Sadinoff, Erica Mason and Julie Blume. All five are students in the dance department of the School of Music. (Photo by Michael Rodemer, assistant professor of art)
Bleeps and bloops that seem to come straight from a science fiction movie merge into the harsh wail of the saxophone, which melts into the soft melody of the piano. Over it all echoes the beat of an unborn human heart.

Red light, then blue, transforms the scuffed stage as the projection of a fetus hovers over two dancers twisting through each other and swooping around a fabric placenta pulsated by the three bodies inside.

For 45 minutes, “Nascent Emotions,” a collaborative work of U-M artists and scientists, is constantly moving and evolving, just like its subject matter.

The performance uses no words, relying instead on music and the movement of dancers to convey the emotions, relationships and physical changes that accompany nine months of human gestation. Sparse set design and simple, yet vibrant, costumes allow small details, such as facial expressions and the growth of the placenta, to stand out.

The partnership that conceived the production combines an unlikely duo of precise scientific study with creative artistic expression.

“The fascination with this project is the interdisciplinary aspect,” says SeonAe Yeo, associate professor of nursing and the leading scientific investigator of the performance group. “Everyone has in-depth knowledge; when they bring it to an unknown territory we feel like we are given a playground.”

Yeo and her team of investigators, which includes people from the fields of engineering, dentistry, and natural resources, hope to find out if emotional changes in the mother can be communicated to her fetus, resulting in physiological changes in the baby. “We know an unborn child can hear and see, so we know both the mother and child may be affected cognitively. At some point, the maternal emotions may be communicated or exchanged with the fetus through the [chemical signals of] the neuroendocrine system,” says Yeo.

The group of investigators came together during the Rackam Interdisciplinary Summer Institute, where last year’s theme was the study of motion and emotion. “Nascent Emotions” reflects the goals of program: to develop a project that reflects the experience and has a community outreach component.

“ ‘Nascent Emotions’ is special because we are looking at something that is a miracle: conception, gestation, and birth,” says Michael Rodemer, an assistant professor of art who was the artistic interpreter of the team. “We would like people to leave the theater with a sense of awe and humility at human life.” The movements and facial expressions of the dancers pass along to the audience the overwhelming experience of birth.

“It is important to learn how it works and then to celebrate it by depicting it,” says Rodemer, who wrote the narrative that serves as the basis of the choreography.

The hope is that “Nascent Emotions” will move people to continue researching the relationship between the mother and fetus. “I think science and art attract people from the other side,” says Yeo, “ ‘Nascent Emotions’ is important because art and science are giving to each other.”

“Nascent Emotions” was performed April 4–6 in The Video Studio in the Media Union. The project was sponsored by the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies and the Life Sciences, Values, and Society Program.