Flock Logic: guest post by Nicole Plett

Princeton University
Sunday, December 5, 2010
guest post by Nicole Plett

About 60 Homo sapiens of all ages, shapes, and sizes (though mostly tending toward the slender and youthful) were united on Sunday evening in the remarkable, site-specific performance, Flock Logic. The improvised movement event for dancers and non-dancers was developed by the students of the Princeton Atelier’s “Collective Motion” project. The class was co-taught by noted choreographer Susan Marshall, and Naomi Leonard, a gifted professor in the department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. A core group of 12 Atelier students formed the backbone of the event; their numbers were augmented by another 20 volunteer “flockers” and a somewhat larger number of “flock watchers.”

Set within the inspired and soaring spaces of the Carl Icahn Laboratory atrium (designed by Rafael Vinoly, pictured above), Flock Logic unfolds on multiple levels – with the movement action set at ground level and all the vantage points located above. It is accompanied by a small combo with synthesizer generating appropriately atmospheric music.

* * *

Flock Logic begins with the slow, uncomplicated gathering of a dozen individuals at a lounge-like area set with a few upholstered chairs and a café table. As the group gradually gathers and new members arrive, we notice the small greetings and acknowledgments we’d expect from other groups of mammals or fowl. The gathering reminds me of birds roosting at twilight.

We eager spectators are perched single-file along the railing of the lab’s mezzanine level like so many sparrows on the power lines alongside New Jersey’s railroad tracks.

Back on the floor, some of the 12 are sitting, lounging; one stretches flat out on his back. The group is inactive, but it’s a wary inactivity typical of creatures in the wild. Individuals sit, stand, turn, move chairs, and take care of some necessary grooming: a young girl casually undoes and remakes her perky ponytail.

The music begins and the group is set in motion; soon a second flock walks into the performance area and joins the first. I recognize (from my other experiences in nature and the world) that this gathering of individuals of many shapes and sizes defines itself by its cohesive behavior. And there’s a kind of serenity that seems to emanate from each member of the group – Do they find comfort in being part of a flock?

Once the flock is set in motion, the movements are quite pedestrian: walking, jogging, and an occasional sprint. Legs, arms, heads, shoulders and feet move naturally but purposefully. There are a few shared static postures that include a nice asymmetrical lunge.

The group moves with a mind of its own. An individual who appears to be a leader heads off to a corner of the space with a troop of followers. But soon she leads no longer; she has blended back into the group. There’s a resonance to this “improvised” performance because, consciously or unconsciously, we recognize its veracity. Through our accumulated knowledge of the natural world with flocks of all kinds – birds, sheep, fish – the movement seems true to life. Although the natural world requires obedience to nature’s rule, this flock adheres to a few simple rules, based on Professor Leonard’s research, but created by the students.

Minutes into the performance, there’s another group (who originally appeared to be spectators just like us) suddenly moving toward the flock. We see them rouse themselves from their vantage point on a comfy circular landing and hurry down the ramp to ground level. Once they arrive, they blend in seamlessly, no longer a separate entity but an indistinguishable part of the flock. A handful of bona fide spectators remain on the landing to continue to observe the flock from above.

As if to test the parameters of group behavior, Flock Logic introduces some outside motivators and obstacles. At one point, two creatures with small strobe lights cause general alarm; splitting the group and causing some to flee out of sight.

At another point, more café tables (which we view from above) are carried into the staging area, each marked with an arrow indicating which direction the flock must pass by. When the second table is introduced, we arrive at the event’s most dramatic moment (“the egg beater”). In a process not unlike trying to merge into the Holland Tunnel, the flock must navigate the space around the fixed point, but also, in following their trajectory out of the circle, its members must interweave without collisions. Some spontaneously change their trajectory in order to avoid collision.

The evening’s most magical moment comes as we see one individual, then another, raise one arm horizontally and place it on the shoulder of another. One after another the group mimics this gesture; something new springs into being, growing (I imagine) like coral or molecular bonds. And suddenly there’s an elegant, almost rigid structure stretching across the floor. With another unseen impetus of the flock, the structure melts away; the flock is in motion again, moving from one state to another as seamlessly as a formation of birds.

As I watch the flock in movement, I notice a group of five students, three on bicycles, casually traveling along the walkway on the outside of the building. As they pass, they glance at the interior flock in the same way one might pause to watch a formation of birds pass overhead.

Like the best performances, this improvised event rewards its spectators in relation to the qualities they bring to it. I was there to savor each lovely moment of movement and composition – intangible qualities of aesthetic pleasure, some pre-arranged, others generated by happenstance and coincidence. Melding the scientific observation and rigorous research of the 21st century with the 20th century inspirations of Cage, Cunningham, and the Judson Theater, I savor this choreographic feast and its beauties of indeterminacy.

— Nicole Plett

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