Doing the double helix

Special to The Times

When dancer-choreographer John Pennington told friends he was making a dance about the Human Genome Project, they mostly just raised their eyebrows and said, "Good luck." Like Pennington himself, before he launched into a frenzy of reading almost a year ago, most of them knew only that scientists were unraveling the secrets of human genes, that it all had something to do with predicting and curing disease, and that a great deal of hope and controversy surrounded the endeavor. But, how, exactly, would that become a dance?

"Well, I kind of wondered about that myself at first," Pennington says, sitting on the sidelines of of a spacious, shadowy Pomona College dance studio in Claremont, where he commutes from Silver Lake to teach modern dance. "I started thinking about Disneyland, when there used to be a journey to the center of an atom. You sat on a little cart and it felt like you were getting smaller and smaller, until you were inside an atom, looking at electrons bouncing around with lights." He leans forward in a characteristically enthusiastic tilt, laughing about the fact that he's describing a ride as an artistic muse.

"So, I thought, why not start there, only with the genetic process? What if I were a piece of DNA, a piece of information on a chromosome or a spiral strand?"

Both literal and abstract movement ended up in the final work, and it looks nothing like a Disney ride. By the time "SPR Synthesis Project" premiered in a gallery at Scripps College in September, Pennington had made various scientific terms -- "double helix," "moving along the strand" and "translation and transcription" -- into a performance that had the audience laughing at one moment and watching in awed silence the next. Response was equally encouraging at performances in November and January at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. The 25-minute work will make its East Coast debut Friday at the City University of New York's Graduate Center in Manhattan, and it may be expanded for future performances in Southern California.

Although the piece highlights Pennington as solo performer (assisted by dancer Jerrad Roberts at the edges), it emerged in collaboration with visual artist Susan Rankaitis and molecular biologist Robert Sinsheimer, who was instrumental in initiating the Human Genome Project on a national scale. Bits of photographs that Rankaitis took of Pennington dancing ended up in her contribution, an 8-by-16-foot curved panel of images in the shape of a chromosome that stands behind him as he dances. Sinsheimer's recorded explanations make up a major part of the score.

"I thought it was an interesting experiment, and I understand about experiments," Sinsheimer says on the phone from his home in Santa Barbara. "I think it's important for people to know about the Human Genome Project -- it could affect so many people -- and dance is certainly another way to do it."

Pennington is still reading genetic news and thinking of ways to incorporate the issues, while sticking with the elements that have worked so far. "About midway through the process, I found this strand of lights I knew I could work with," he says of pulsating fiber-optic lights that he winds around himself and unwinds near the start of the piece, an effect that Sinsheimer thinks works to suggest the DNA molecule unwinding. "I knew all the movement had to be very clear and honest, because people would be standing very close to me in a gallery space," Pennington says. For the New York concert hall performance, some adjustments will be made. Rankaitis, for one thing, is making her images "dance" using DVD projections.

What will remain constant is audience participation -- a new idea for Pennington, who spent nearly 15 years dancing with L.A.'s Bella Lewitzky Dance Company before it disbanded in 1997. In one section of "SPR Synthesis Project" (the initials represent the three collaborators), Pennington splits the audience into cheering sections to suggest the commercial companies that have competed to complete the human genome sequence and acquire patents. Later, covering his silvery top and pants with a latex poncho, he has audience members write on him as a symbolic passing along of genetic information. "I wanted to include a ritual act, where people could feel like part of it, giving their personal 'signature,' " he says. "What I realized is that we are the eventual end of genetic material, so decoding the genes is about all of us. It's ultimately about the human condition."

Science with artistic resonance

"SPR Synthesis Project" was already a gleam in Rankaitis and Sinsheimer's eye when Pennington renewed an acquaintance with Rankaitis, who lives in Claremont and is a professor of art at Scripps College. With science and art collaborations all the rage, it didn't seem a strange move to invite a dancer into the project, even for Sinsheimer, who has always had a keen interest in communicating scientific concepts to people outside his realm. A former chancellor of UC Santa Cruz, now emeritus and still working in the lab, he was no stranger to modern dance or art (his wife, Karen, is a curator of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art). Rankaitis' longtime interest in things scientific had already resulted in a body of work that made reference to genetics, as well as brain research.

For Pennington, however, there were quantum leaps to be made, so to speak. He worked his way into it by latching onto scientific terms that were resonant in terms of movement. "I saw that scientists were talking about pathways, transitions and the double helix, which is the spiral," he says, "That's the basis of my technique: spiral to the floor, spiral up, spiral to the back. All the moderns discovered the spiral."

He whips a diagram of protein synthesis from a stack of research that inspired him early on, pointing to curving strips that look like backbones and snaking pathways and trailing polypeptide chains that look for all the world like dance notation.

Although he'd taken a few science courses while majoring in theater at college, Pennington knew that his future was in the dance studio, not the lab. Still, during his Lewitzky years, he liked to read popular science. It was during a summer that both the Lewitzky company and Rankaitis were in residence at an arts program in France that Pennington first met Rankaitis.

"He was one of the dancers I most enjoyed watching," Rankaitis says. She has arrived at the studio to talk about the upcoming performance. "But what I also found out was that he held his own in conversations with French conceptual artists and writers. Even though he was a very young dancer, he was intellectually sophisticated. You can see that's true now from watching his dancing and his choreography."

In the six years since the Lewitzky company disbanded, Pennington's solo performances have attracted increased attention, whether he's reconstructing historic modern dance solos (he makes his own charismatic statements in work by Harald Kreutzberg, Ted Shawn and Daniel Nagrin) or jamming with others (he was a guest in a recent Jazz Tap Ensemble program). One reviewer after another tries to find words to describe his crystalline form and focus, noting spectacular balances, nuanced interpretations and sculptural intensity.

In terms of choreography, however, the 43-year-old dancer says it took awhile to find his own voice after his immersion in the world of Lewitzky, whom he counts as both mentor and family. In the choreographic commissions he's had, from colleges and dance companies across the U.S. and a few in Europe, his work has tended to be abstract and to revolve around emotional issues.

"But I was also affected by Bella, who was very socially conscious," he says. "She made her antiwar statements every few years, and she was always fighting injustice. I thought, for me, this was a good time to think about what I can say with my dance, how I can contribute."

With that in mind, he recently formed the Pennington Dance Group. His first commissions under this name were from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which adds dance to some of its educational programs. Each essay into choreography, he says, takes him closer to knowing what he can do best. Who, after all, would have thought he could become inspired by genetic research?

"I got really involved when I began to read about the ethical issues," he says, "genetic privacy, designer babies, the commercialization of cures. And then, I started thinking about good that can happen. I mention the dark side in the piece -- it was a criticism early on that I didn't emphasize that enough, and I made a few changes. But I'm basically a positive person. It was a phrase Robert had written that made it all click for me, that 'one day soon, we'll be able to possibly eliminate human misery and suffering.'

"My response was to hope; that's the thing I have to say. I hope that my friends don't have to die anymore." Pennington is thinking of a friend who died of diabetes last year, several he's lost to AIDS, and the fact that Lewitzky's leg had to be amputated due to cardiovascular disease.

With this in mind, Pennington built into the last part of "SPR Synthesis" a series of physical images based on healing practices from different cultures and a moment when he responds to Sinsheimer's voice, which is again expressing the hope that genome research can help eliminate human suffering. In a silence made all the more intense by his riveting stillness, Pennington says a single word, "Hurry." At one performance in Santa Barbara, that word was spontaneously echoed by a few audience members -- one of those "golden moments," Pennington says, when you can believe that creating a dance really matters.

When Sinsheimer is asked whether dance can say something that scientists cannot about the Human Genome Project, he thinks for a moment. Probably not, he says, because he can do a thorough job with words, illustrations and video demonstrations. But what about that last moment in the dance when Pennington says, "Hurry," having drawn his audience into the world of genetic research in a different, more personal way?

"That was quite moving, you're quite right," Sinsheimer says. "Scientists also have at the back of our minds that there will be useful applications to our research. I thought that was quite effective."

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