Ferocious Beauty: Genome

“…beautiful, richly imaginative, hugely ambitious… a seamless blend of dance, music ingenious storytelling, video and special effects… captivating, surprisingly funny, intensely moving, thought-provoking.”– The Chicago Sun-Times, September, 2006

About Ferocious Beauty: Genome
Reflections on Building the Dance
What Would You Tell Mendel?
A Catalyst for Interdisciplinary Collaboration
Ferocious Beauty: Genome in the News
Choreographer Liz Lerman on Ferocious Beauty: Genome

Genetic research raises prospects that previous generations may scarcely have imagined: of prolonging life and maintaining youth indefinitely, of replicating an individual, of choosing the bodies and brains of our children, and of creating new species to feed and serve us. How we heal, age, procreate, and eat may all be altered in the next years by scientific research happening right now.

In Ferocious Beauty: Genome Dance Exchange explores the current historic moment of revelation and questioning in genetic research. Under the artistic direction of choreographer Liz Lerman the subject is represented through a plurality of viewpoints, mirroring a dialogue among multiple voices — artistic, scientific, and scholarly — in all their varied perspectives.

Inspired by the mapping of the human genome, this multi-media dance piece is the result of a rare and unique collaboration between artists, scientists, and educators.

About Ferocious Beauty: Genome

Ferocious Beauty: Genome
, a multi-media dance performance, premiered at Connecticut’s Wesleyan University on February 3, 2006 to standing ovations, attention from the mainstream press (including Science magazine) and a strong review in the New York Times. The piece has since been performed across North America at such venues as Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, Duke University, the Museum of Contemporary Arts in Chicago and the Mayo Clinic Convention Center.

Collaboration has been key to the development, production and success of Ferocious Beauty: Genome, as the project engaged artists, scientists, and educators in an exploration of the human implications of discoveries in genetic science. Collaborators include representatives of such institutions as NIH, John Hopkins University, Stanford University, Howard University, the Genetics and Public Policy Center, the Institute for Genomic Research and the U.S. Department of Energy. Scientists and scholars have not only advised on content, but also contributed choreographic and narrative ideas, as scientists appear in the staged work through projected video segments. They have also helped to leverage media coverage and design interactive programming such as town hall discussions on bioethics and art/science workshops.

Reflections on Building the Dance

“Along the way we learned how structure, characters, and meaning can come to artists when they rattle around in someone else’s universe.”– Liz Lerman

“When we started to create Ferocious Beauty: Genome I realized that we had a curious challenge,” Liz Lerman explains, “which was to take a subject, genetics, and a form, modern dance, both of which are difficult to understand, and to combine them into something that would be understandable. This paradox was with us as we generated ideas, talked to scientists and mediated all the information we gathered through our bodies. Along the way we learned how ideas come into being when scientists ask questions, and we also saw how structure, characters, and meaning can come to artists when they rattle around in someone else’s universe.”

The piece was inspired in the spring of 2002, when Lerman was asked to lead a public discussion on an exhibit entitled Gene(sis) at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle. The visual art in the show revolved around genetic research – its implications, its discoveries, and its potential. The museum sent a background package, which got Lerman thinking about the topic. “I have a teenage daughter, and the information made me wonder about the choices her generation might face,” she recalls. “When I was asked what my next project would be during a radio interview, I found myself saying I’d like to develop a project on the genome.”

Lerman then approached the scientists in universities, think tanks and research institutes throughout the country. “I have to admit, it was difficult for me (a scientist) to comprehend what a choreographer actually does,” says Bonnie Bassler, professor of Molecular Biology at Princeton University and an advisor to Ferocious Beauty: Genome. “When Lerman told me she was working on a piece about biology, I was doubly curious because I wondered how one communicates biology through dance. That being said, I know that science is scary to a lot of people because they feel they don’t have the background. If so, I thought combining science with art could allow the public a gentler way in to understanding science.”

“Science and art touch the same space inside me,” reflected Ferocious Beauty: Genome advisor Eric Jakobsson, professor of Department of Molecular and Integrative Physiology at the University of Illinois. “They both provide a lens, focusing on some particular part of the world. Both better be true–otherwise they are no good. Both require a lot of discipline to get at truth. And for me, seeing a subject through both the scientific and the artistic lens deepens the intensity of the pleasure and the depth of the meaning.

Lerman also narrowed her focus as the project developed. “Once we entered the very large realm of genetics, genomics, and developmental biology, we realized we had tumbled into a place far deeper and stranger than Alice in her fall down the rabbit hole,” she says. “I realized that this project could be about capitalism, or religion, or nutrition, or population control. It could be about race and identity, or about ethics, or about policy and professionalism. It could be strictly about the mechanics of the genome, using dance to describe biological processes. It could be about the future. Ultimately, the piece poses small and large questions, but it doesn’t attempt to seek answers to all of the questions currently being generated by scientific research. No single work of art ever could.”

What Would You Tell Mendel?
Ferocious Beauty: Genome was designed to reach audience members who may not know science, or who might be worried about genetics and the future. Lerman wanted her audience to walk away feeling like they could understand the subject, and even have a voice in how it might impact their lives. To realize this vision, she combined guidance from her collaborators with movement, sound, narrative and creative multimedia elements.

On the stage, Ferocious Beauty: Genome integrates elements of dance and theater with state-of-the-art recorded and live-feed video and multi-channel soundscape. The performance takes place in two acts. The first includes a series of scenes emphasizing the awe and rigor of genetic discovery through vignettes about specific research subjects. This provides the audience with basic knowledge through videos of scientists, text, and dance. It is also where the figure of Gregor Mendel – the father of modern genetics – is introduced as a character through both live performance and in video, on which he tends to his pea plants. Contemporary scientists, also shown in videotaped segments, engage in a virtual dialogue with him as they answer the question, “What would you tell Mendel if you were to meet him now?”

“Would you like to see the structure of a gene?” responds one, Manju Hingorani, Assistant Professor of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at Wesleyan University. “It’s beautiful.”

The second act revolves around questions that emerge from issues such as the nature of aging and death – how long do we want to live, what’s driving the quest for longevity and the market for human perfection – and, what’s the impact when we can control diversity?

New York Times dance critic Jennifer Dunning offered glimpses of the performance in her review. “There is nothing quite like the passion and the clarity of video commentary by the Wesleyan professors interviewed for this multimedia production,” she wrote. “A segment in which two scientists ‘choreograph’ is very funny.”

“Early in her career,” she continues, “Ms. Lerman began to integrate trained and untrained performers in their 60’s and older into her pieces, expertly and unsentimentally. One of those performers, Martha Wittman, meditatively talks of apples as she peels one, wearing a saucepan as a jaunty hat. She contemplates cooking, the resemblance of a spiral of apple peel to the DNA chain, and the genetic material contained so compactly in apple seeds.

“The light dims. Video of a small woman moving on spiky steel crutches crowds out projections of globelike apples. The woman, Suzanne Richard, enters the stage in a wheelchair. A hugely, defiantly expressive presence on her own and in the video close-ups of her upper body, Ms. Richard takes a boldly active part in the evocative dance with able-bodied performers that follows. Then, quietly, Ms. Wittman appears, musing aloud about the perfect, tasteless supermarket apples of today. ‘No more tart surprises,’ she wistfully murmurs.

“In that single remark about apples,” Dunning observes, “and in the way she, Ms. Wittman and Ms. Richard arrive there in that simple, powerful segment, Ms. Lerman makes an irrefutable case for the place of perceived biological imperfection in the span of human genetics. Her argument has nothing to do with ethics. And it is a case that could be made only by an artist.”

A Catalyst for Interdisciplinary Collaboration

“In terms of the university, we are profoundly changed by this experience. The bar is set now for having artists integrated into many aspects of campus life. It’s been a terrific catalyst for interdisciplinary collaboration.”–Pamela Tatge, director of the Center for the Arts at Wesleyan University, after the premiere of Ferocious Beauty: Genome.

From the start, Ferocious Beauty: Genome was conceived as an opportunity to become a catalyst for community engagement as well as a performance piece. In this spirit, educational and interactive formats were designed as companion programming to build understanding and awareness of the possibilities and implications of genetic research. These include lectures, panels, interactive workshops, hands-on experiences, town hall meetings and publications. At the foundation of each event is the commitment to cross-disciplinary collaboration.

Wesleyan University involved a number of community-centered activities in concert with the premiere. These included an art exhibit of works by Ellen K. Levy exploring the impact of genetic research and a panel discussion entitled, “Lived Experience and the Human Genome Debate.” The discussion brought people whose conditions may be helped by genetic research together with artists, ethicists, scientists and religious thinkers. It represented a departure from many discussions that focus on stem cell research by including the voices of people and families for which genetic research holds hope and promise.

Ferocious Beauty: Genome was performed at Williams College the week after its premiere at Wesleyan University. There, the community was engaged in a series of events that demonstrate the ways that Ferocious Beauty: Genome is serving as a catalyst for dialogue and collaboration.

Symposium: Is There a Genetic Basis for Racial Distinction?

Sociologist Troy Duster, anthropologist Deborah Bolnick, and science writer Steve Olson led a symposium on the subject of race and genetics, exploring whether there is a biological basis for the concept of racial distinctions.

Workshop/Master Class: Good Seed/Bad Seed: Creation and Variation
The Dance Exchange led an innovative approach that partners science and art, participants explored variation: creative and genetic.

Town Hall Meeting: Stem Cell Research, Religion and Politics
The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) hosted a Town Hall Meeting style panel discussion on stem cell research, religion, and politics featuring Massachusetts Representative Daniel E. Bosley (D-First Berkshire), chairman of the house economic development and emerging technologies committee and Rabbi Dennis S. Ross, director of Concerned Clergy for Choice of New York; and Marsha Altschuler, chair and professor of biology at Williams College.

Talk: On Reproductive Technologies, Women’s Health, and Social Justice in the Genomic Era
This talk by Abby Lippman, a professor in McGill University’s departments of epidemiology, biostatistics, and occupational health, was co-presented with the Women’s and Gender Studies and the Department of Philosophy at Williams College.

Installation: The Human Race Machine
This interactive video installation by artist Nancy Burson generated composite photographs that allowed participants to see themselves with the facial characteristics of six different races mapped onto their own visage.

Additional educational workshops and gatherings offered as companion programs for the piece in communities across the country include Slam Science workshops, which are based on the Dance Exchange’s collaboration with the NeoGriot poetry ensemble of Flint, Michigan, and challenge participants to convey their understanding of the science using poetry and movement. The impact is two-fold: participants are motivated to grasp scientific principles well enough to state them with fresh words and images, and the creative act of putting these lessons into art underscores learning. Another format is the roundtable discussion in which community members are invited to explore such questions as Who owns our genes? Where do we draw the limits about what’s acceptable in genetic experimentation? Will the benefits of genetic research (such as prolonged life) become high-priced luxuries or basic human rights? The Dance Exchange also hosts “talk-back” sessions after the performances and creativity/discovery workshops designed to engage people in creative acts, problem-solving and pursuing a hypothesis.

Ferocious Beauty: Genome
creates opportunities for people to think about genetic research in an accessible, creative and thoughtful way. In this way, the project uses art to do what art does best: nudges open the doors of perception, inviting individuals to locate their feelings in the context of a larger subject. At the same time, because of the collaborative wisdom integral to the project, Ferocious Beauty: Genome does more than provide an arts experience. It also helps to restore the imaginary rift between art and science, and by doing so celebrates the commitments shared by both fields: to provide insights for understanding – and for making positive contributions to – our world.

Ferocious Beauty: Genome In the News

Innovation is in Her Genes, The National Post, Toronto

A Stunning Commentary in Dancing DNA, The Globe and Mail, Toronto

Connecting Bodies, Apples and DNA Through Dance, New York Times

Interview with Liz Lerman on GreatDance

Dancing Science, Howard Hughes Medical Bulletin

Evolution of a Dance, Howard Hughes Medical Bulletin

Life’s Mysteries Unfold in Fascinating Genome, Chicago Sun Times

A capsule update: February, 2007 Interview with Liz Lerman on National Public Radio Charlotte, North Carolina affiliate, WFAE

Dance and DNA, DNA Policy News

Where + When, The Washingtonian


Ferocious Beauty: Genome’s lead commissioners are The Center for the Arts at Wesleyan University and The Flint Cultural Center Corporation.

Ferocious Beauty: Genome has received leadership support from the Nathan L. Cummings Foundation, the Dallas Morse Coors Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Additional funding has come from the Doris Duke Fund for Dance of the National Dance Project, a program administered by the New England Foundation for the Arts with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ford Foundation, and from Leveraging Investments in Creativity (LINC). Additional developmental partners are the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, Duke Performances at Duke University, Workspace for Choreographers, Maryland Institute College of Art and the Applewood Estate of the Ruth Mott Foundation. The Genetics and Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins University provided essential support and guidance.

Liz Lerman Dance Exchange thanks the following Scientists and Humanities Collaborators whose expertise and insights contributed to the development of Ferocious Beauty: Genome

Laurel F. Appel
Visiting Associate Professor
Department of Biology
Shanklin & Hall-Atwater Labs
Wesleyan University

Howard Bilofsky, Ph.D.
Senior Fellow
University of Pennsylvania

Bonnie Bassler
Professor of Molecular Biology
Princeton University
Mary F. Bullock

Denise K. Casey
Science Writer/Editor
Human Genome Management Information System
Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Barbara Culliton
Deputy Editor
Health Affairs

Anna DiRienzo
Department of Human Genetics
University of Chicago

Daniel Drell
Human/Microbial Genome Project
Office of Biological and
Environmental Research
US Department of Energy

Georgia Dunston
Professor and Chair, Dept. of
Howard University
College of Medicine

Irene Anne Eckstrand

Claire M. Fraser
The Institute for Genomic Research

Laura Grabel
Fisk Professor of Natural Science
Biology Department
Wesleyan University

Lori Gruen
Associate Professor of Philosophy
Wesleyan University

Marti S. Head
Manager, Computational Chemistry
Computational, Analytical, and Structural Sciences
GlaxoSmithKline Pharmaceuticals

Manju Hingorani
Professor of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry
Wesleyan University

Kathy Hudson
Director, Genetics and Public Policy Center
Associate Professor, Berman Bioethics Institute
Institute of Genetic Medicine, Department of Pediatrics
Johns Hopkins University

Eric Jakobsson
Professor, Department of Molecular and Integrative Physiology, and of Biochemistry, and of the Center for Biophysics and Computational Biology
Senior Research Scientist, National Center for Supercomputing Applications
Professor, Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Elke Jordan
Deputy Director (retired) of the
National Human Genome Research Institute, National Institutes of Health

Harris Lewin
Director, Post Genomic Institute
University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign

Chip Lovett
Professor of Chemistry
Williams College

Jane Maienschein
Director, Center for Biology and Society
School of Life Sciences
Arizona State University

Marissa Mills
Science Communication Specialist
US Dept. of Energy Genome Programs

Julia A. Moore
Senior Advisor, Office of International Science & Engineering
National Science Foundation

Sayan Mukherjee
Assistant Professor
Duke Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy

Richard J. Mural
Director, Scientific Content and Analysis
Celera Genomics

Uwe Ohler
Assistant Professor
Duke Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy

Gary Olsen
Associate Professor of Microbiology and Biophysics
University of Illinois at Urbana– Champaign

Stephen Palumbi
Professor in Marine Sciences
Hopkins Marine Station
Stanford University

Brian Schwartz
Professor of Physics and
Vice President for Research and Sponsored Programs, The Graduate Center
City University of New York

James A. Shapiro
Dept. of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
University of Chicago

Greg Simon
Center for Accelerating Medical Solutions (CAMS)

Charles F. Sing
Department of Human Genetics
University of Michigan

Aaron Turkewitz
Associate Professor in Molecular Genetics & Cell Biology
University of Chicago

Michael P. Weir
Director, Hughes Program in the Life Sciences
Professor of Biology
Wesleyan University

Nancy S. Wexler
President, Hereditary Disease Foundation
Higgins Professor of Neuropsychology
Columbia University

Artistic Collaborators
Liz Lerman, Choreographer
John Boesche, Media Designer
Logan Kibens, Video and Effects Editing
Michael Mazzola, Lighting Designer
Darron L West, Soundscape
Liz Lerman Dance Exchange company
Guests from theater, science, and dance communities


A selection of in-print references used by Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in developing Ferocious Beauty: Genome

Our Post-Human Future by Francis Fukuyama; Picador, 2003.

Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies and What It Means to Be Human by Joel Garreau; Broadway Books, 2006.

Invisible Frontiers: The Race to Synthesize a Human Gene by Stephen Hall; Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987.

Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future by James Hughes; Westview Press, 2004.

Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution by Randal Keynes; Riverhead Hardcover, 2002.

Why Some Like It Hot: Food, Genes, and Cultural Diversity by Gary Paul Nabhan; Shearwater Books, 2004.

Mapping Human History: Discovering the Past through Our Genes by Steve Olson; Bloomsbury Publishing, 2002.

The Evolution Explosion: How Humans Cause Rapid Evolutionary Change by Steve Palumbi; W. W. Norton & Company; 2002.

The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan; Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2002.

Genome by Matt Ridley; Harper Perennial, 2000.

Remaking Eden
by Lee Silver; Harper Perennial, 1998.

Redesigning Humans by Gregory Stock; Mariner Books, 2003.

Seven Daughters of Eve by Brian Sykes; W. W. Norton & Company. 2002.

Mapping Fate: A Memoir of Family, Risk, and Genetic Research by Alice Wexler; University of California Press, 1996.

Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior by Jonathan Weiner; Knopf, 1999.

Choreographer Liz Lerman on Ferocious Beauty: Genome

Nonfiction Dancing
When we started to create Ferocious Beauty: Genome over six years ago, I realized that we had set ourselves a curious challenge: to take a subject, genetics, and a form, modern dance, both of which can be difficult to understand, then to combine them into something that would be understandable. This paradox became a standing joke at the Dance Exchange as we researched and rehearsed the piece. It was with us as we generated ideas, talked to scientists and mediated all the information we gathered through our bodies. Along the way we came to understand a lot, not just about genetics, but about dance, not just about scientific method, but about artistic process. We learned how ideas come into being when scientists ask questions, and we also saw how structure, characters, and meaning can come to artists when they rattle around in someone else’s universe.

After three years of performing this work in cities across North America, I am confident that at least some of the understanding we gained is communicating across the footlights. But I also hope that your experience will be about more than just understanding. In any case, here are a few things you might want to know: First, we didn’t do it all. Once we entered the very large realm of genetics, genomics, and developmental biology, we realized we had tumbled into a place far deeper and stranger than Alice in her fall down the rabbit hole. I soon realized that this project could be about capitalism, or religion, or nutrition, or population control. It could be about race and identity, or about ethics, policy and professionalism. It could be strictly about the mechanics of the genome, using dance to describe biological processes for those of us who cannot stomach dry lectures or thick textbooks. It could be about the future and what the conflation of genomics, robotics, and nanotechnology might mean for the human race. While Ferocious Beauty touches on a few of those topics, the piece is ultimately about some particular sparks of interest we discovered in our explorations and in the minds of people we encountered. It poses some small and large questions, but it doesn’t attempt to seek answers to all of questions currently being generated by scientific research. No single work of art ever could.

In choosing the subjects and sections that you see gathered in this work tonight, we employed an idea that I have come to call nonfiction dancing. This is a way of developing and presenting content for a dance that parallels how one might read nonfiction (or at least how I read nonfiction): it allows for deep, absorbed comprehension, but also for skimming, and for what I call the I Ching method: randomly opening to a page and picking up the thread wherever the eye falls. Through this process we arrived at the same things a reader can gain from nonfiction: amazing stories, details, specificity, and the benefits of research that someone else has done for us.

This material was filtered through the Dance Exchange’s unique method for making dances, a process in which the company members engage as full collaborators. These brilliant artists pursued research of their own, proposed particular content, and responded to assignments that we designed in order to generate movement, images and structures. In addition, we took some new approaches for this project. We spent many hours with scientists, on their turf and on ours. We used movement to form a language, making a direct translation of what we were hearing and reading. We asked the scientists to watch us for a while and do their own translating back to us. Ultimately we were doing what we always do to understand the incomprehensible: putting the questions in our bodies and sorting through the answers. Out of the mass of material generated, we began a process of sifting, and the work assumed a shape in which selection and omission are critical. Just as the author of a nonfiction book decides on what to include, how to sequence, and how to interpret, we reached beyond the facts – central though they are – to present what is actually a very subjective journey.

Being aware of the complexity of the subject we were tackling, I determined early on that Ferocious Beauty: Genome would incorporate some additional elements, designed to help convey information, carry feeling, and to shape the stage pictures and the structure of the acts. So the production you are seeing incorporates projected video and still imagery, a complex soundscape, and richly textured lighting. We were very lucky to be able to work with masters of these media: John Boesche, Logan Kibens, Darron L West, and Michael Mazzola. All were true partners in shaping the form and content of Ferocious Beauty and made an incalculable contribution to the piece.

In the end, I hope the performance is like a great nonfiction read. Although the structure of concert work means that you can’t exactly skim, I do think you can allow your attention to dive in and out and to meditate or rest in between. We have designed the piece to let the scientists speak for themselves, though subject to our editing. We chose the ideas to highlight through long conversations among ourselves, with the scientists and with the public.

So what, ultimately, will you experience in this essay in nonfiction dancing? Act One takes us into the laboratories of scientists, and offers a fantasia on some genetically-related themes from history and folklore. For Act Two, I selected three ideas I was interested in exploring away from the science laboratory: long life, selection and perfection, and the nature of ancestry.

It could well have been many other stories; after all genomics touches everything. But I chose these three and perhaps that is where nonfiction, curiosity, subjectivity, and fiction finally merge.

Liz Lerman
Founding Artistic Director