A Dancer and a Scientist Deliver a New Take on the Moon Walk

When modern dance collides with science and space history, the result can be a great leap forward

We Choose to Go to the Moon
The Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company premiers its newest work, "We choose to go to the moon," at the Kennedy Center on September 19 and 20, 2015. Photo by Jeff Watts

In his graduate school days at Arizona State University, Jim Zimbelman, emboldened by a student discount and an artist spouse, purchased the occasional pair of tickets for campus dance performances. One performance, which featured the work of trailblazing American dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, left him mystified.

“I didn’t have a clue,” he says of that and the several other encounters with modern dance. For a scientist engrossed in the geologic interpretation of remote sensing data for a Martian volcano, the cultural gulf was vast. In those days, the Smithsonian planetary geologist says, “I wasn't thinking about art, I was thinking about rocks.”

But time has a way of serving up second chances. And so last May, the affable Zimbelman, who has worked at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., for the last 20 years and relishes the opportunity to interact with non-scientists, responded to an email that had bounced from queue to queue in museum channels: choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess, described by a Washington Post dance critic as the “poet laureate of Washington dance,” was in search of scientists to interview for his new dance work about space. Zimbelman, whose professional interests lean toward extraterrestrial sand dunes and volcanoes, recalls thinking, “Dance company? Sure! I'll see why he wants to talk to a scientist.”

In short order Zimbelman found himself face-to-face with Burgess, whose troupe, The Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company, has been a lauded presence on the Washington dance landscape for more than 20 years.  Each man confessed to a modicum of uncertainty about how such a conversation would unfold, but the exchange was exciting—even “fun,” as Burgess puts its.  “I think each of us came away from the visit having learned something about the other and about our different perspectives on this broad topic of space,” Zimbelman says. 

What Burgess learned will be revealed on Saturday and Sunday, September 19 and 20, at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, when he and his dancers premiere the new half-hour work, “We choose to go to the moon,” an exploration of the connection between human beings and space. The title alludes to the 1962 “Moon” speech delivered by President Kennedy and establishes for the piece a note of nostalgia—a nod to the early bold days of the space program and to the now-ebbing generation that led the way. Laced through the score are sound bites from Burgess’s interviews with scientists—Zimbelman and others—reflecting upon the mysteries and majesty of space.   

We Choose to go to the Moon

Just as chance played a role in bringing Burgess and Zimbelman into conversation, so, too, had it played a role in leading Burgess to the subject of space for his new dance. In fact, the connection was as random as a seat assignment on an airplane.

Last year, en route to visit his ailing father in New Mexico, Burgess and his partner found themselves chatting with their seatmate, a NASA communications manager, Barbara Zelon, who works on the Orion program. The meeting and subsequent conversations with Zelon fortified Burgess’s curiosity about how the relationship between humans and space could be articulated by dance.

On a more profound and personal note, however, during what became a series of visits over the final months of his father’s life, Burgess often found himself sitting outside his house, peering up at a clear night sky bedecked with stars and pondering existential matters of life and death, enunciated in his father’s waning days and writ large in the cosmos.

“All my projects have a personal interest factor,” Burgess says. “Something occurs in my life and I think, ‘This is fascinating—I need to learn more.’" As the idea of space—the nation’s 50-year commitment to exploration, the ever-burgeoning body of knowledge, the poignant image of a fragile Earth—took hold, Burgess reached out to scientists at NASA and the Air and Space Museum, exploring their own relationships, professional and personal, with space.

Dana Tai Soon Burgess
The work choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess crafted embraces both nostalgia and wonder, casting a wistful backward look at the space race and marveling at the scientific revelations of the present. Photo by Mary Noble Ours

While Burgess initially viewed these half dozen or so interviews as research, he came to see them as integral to the texture of his piece. “There was a passion and wisdom about their voices that I loved,” Burgess says of the scientists. “And their voices were so diverse—they sounded like music to me.”

Into the score, then, Burgess incorporated sound bites from his interviews with Zimbelman and NASA scientists, among them Neil Gehrels, an experimental astrophysicist who studies gamma-ray bursts and supernovae, and Bruce McCandless, a former astronaut who, in 1984, made the first untethered flight in space.

The work Burgess crafted embraces both nostalgia and wonder, casting a wistful backward look at the space race and marveling at the scientific revelations of the present. Popular songs of bygone years—“Stardust,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” and “Catch a Falling Star”—alternate with documentary elements like an excerpt of President Kennedy’s 1962 speech and a NASA recording of the magnetosphere.

We Choose to Go to the Moon
Dancers Kelly Southall, Sarah Halzack and Alvaro Palau perform “We choose to go to the moon.” Photo by Jeff Watts

As the dance begins, the rising curtain reveals a line of dancers whose individual faces are tightly framed with light. To the melodious strains of “Star Dust,” they “toss” the lights toward the back of the stage and create a star field. When the work draws to a close, a lone figure remains on stage, gazing at an image of Earth diminishing slowly until it vanishes from view.

Of their meeting and his brief speaking part—an ominous reference to dark matter—in Burgess’s score for “We choose to go to the moon,” Zimbelman says, “It makes me consider my work in a different light—it makes me try to appreciate it not just as a scientist but as a human being. Who would have thought that, years down the road, I might somehow influence a choreographer?”     

For Burgess, the conversations with scientists left him with a sense not of the gap between science and art, but of the common ground: “They are using creativity in order to make discoveries. Like a choreographer, a scientist cannot reach for discovery without leaps of faith—a hypothesis of what could be.”

On Saturday, September 19, and Sunday, September 20, at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company presents Fluency in Four: three repertory works by Burgess—Picasso Dances, Mandala, and Confluence—and the premiere of his newest work, "We choose to go to the moon," created in collaboration with NASA. 

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