Research at K-state combines physics and dance to create Crystal Ballet


Odds are we all encounter it at some point throughout our day-to-day life and we don’t give it much of a second thought. It’s in our houses, our cars and pretty much every building we enter. Glass is everywhere. It takes the shape of containers and barriers; it is a seemingly solid substance. Until you see it on a dance stage.

A unique thought at first and yet one that Laura Donnelly, assistant professor of dance, is working to bring to life. Her current research project, which has come to be known as the Crystal Ballet, focuses on bringing physics and dance together. Donnelly is working in collaboration with Amit Chakrabarti, professor of physics and head of the physics department, to construct a ballet which expresses the process glass undergoes in its formation.

“Our collaboration started because both Professor Donnelly and I are extremely interested in expressing the beauty of natural laws via artistic expressions,” Chakrabarti said.

The collaboration began in the spring of 2013 with a chance meeting between the two professors.

“I am always looking for interesting ideas, inspiration from outside allows me to expand the areas I’m interested in and it brings another energy to rehearsal,” Donnelly said.

The combination of the two departments is just natural, according to Donnelly.

The result of this natural collaboration is the Crystal Ballet, which is being presented in three parts, the first of which occurred this past spring. Each presentation of the dance will express a different stage in the process of glass formation, the heating of the molecules in an ordered crystal, the melting stage and then the sudden cooling stage. With each ballet, the dancers artistically express the process the molecules undergo in each of these phases.

Marissa Goodrich, graduate student in special education, said it was easy to see the natural connection between the two fields of study.

“The ballet was beautiful,” Goodrich said. “It is such a unique way to express something like the formation of glass and yet once you see it, it makes perfect sense.”

Although the Crystal Ballet is a collaboration, Chakrabarti said the final product is not to be interpreted as a physics item.

“The format Laura and I chose to express knowledge gained from cutting edge research is an artistic form,” Chakrabarti said. “The end product however is not a physics item; it is an artistic item based on human expressions and filled with another level of beauty. We both find that exciting and fascinating.”

In her research, Donnelly undertakes the job of taking the physics behind the research and turning it into an artistic item. Working with composer and 2013 K-State alumnus, Bryce Craig, to create original music that blends well with the dance is one of her responsibilities. Donnelly also choreographs the movements for the ballet. Finding a way to express molecular motion through human movement is something that Donnelly has found to be not as difficult as one might think.

“There are infinite possibilities of ways to move the human body so I just have to choose,” Donnelly said. “Coming up with movement is not hard, editing is always the hard part. Skillful editing is what makes a dance communicate clearly.”

And yet her research is not without it’s difficulties. Having enough dancers is one of the issues, as well as rehearsal time. Because the dancers involved in the project volunteer their time, sometimes finding that time to volunteer can be challenging.

Both Donnelly and Chakrabarti have a goal for this research beyond the Crystal Ballet.

“We would like to eventually create a lecture demonstration event that we could take to middle schools and high schools,” Donnelly said.

This would present the opportunity to teach physics and dance in a way that offered a more interactive process for the students. Donnelly discussed the possibility of having students solve physics problems with movement, which would allow students to learn kinesthetically. Chakrabarti also said they want to express the benefits of presenting the research as a teaching opportunity.

“Our work shows that science and art are both important in our experience as human beings and that an average person can enjoy the intricacies of both up to a certain level,” Chakrabarti said. “It thus opens up community participation in science discussions.”

This is not the first time Donnelly has blended ballet with outside influences, and it will probably not be the last, as the professor expresses a profound interest in research of the collaborative nature. Donnelly has also organized ballets that collaborate with concepts of cellular biology.

According to Donnelly, the combination of human movement and natural laws is something that is not only possible, but also completely understandable, a concept that is central to her research for the Crystal Ballet.

“For me, everything is connected,” Donnelly said.