Three Body Problem

“[…] a three-body problem is a class of problems in classical or quantum mechanics that model the motion of three particles.”

 Three Body Problem is a dance piece performed by three dancers (Fiona Brannigan, Esperanza Quindara and Rechelle Gayler) in what feels more like a Petri dish than a stage – the first tip-off as to choreographer Paul Jackson’s enduring love of science. It also sets some of the core themes for an up-close-and-personal 25 minutes of exploring bodily interrelations.

Does this sound a bit intimate? It should, but not in the way that you might think.

In rehearsal Paul had set up the foldout seats in a series of eight pairs that formed a circle, like the outer electron shell of an atom. A stage for a dance performance usually implies certain structures – upstage versus downstage, for example – and segregation between the performers and the audience. But the only barrier between the dancers and us is a long stretch of canary yellow fabric that borders the circular ‘stage’. Paul explains:

“We live in curved space, in elliptical shapes — our bodies are round, the motions of our joints are round. And because the body is rounded, it seems weird to be shoving it into a square space.”

The performance begins in silence. There’s an electrified curiosity running between the trio as they test the waters, tiptoe on one another’s reactivity, prod at invisible boundaries just to see what will happen. As an audience member, it’s almost as if you’re sitting in a beaker as a chemical reaction takes place within it, and that reaction could spill out onto you at any second.

When the music does commence, it too is circular, fluid, accentuating the underwater imagery already prevalent in the piece, a serene but unrelenting microbial progression into whatever evolutionary by-product will eventuate. The dancers bounce and react off one another, a fast-forwarded Darwinian sequence. From subatomic motions we move to unicellular creatures, to algae, amoeba, jellyfish – pick your Attenborough speciality.

The entire work is made up of curvatures and cyclical patterns, starting from the unique stage setup. Because Paul is fascinated by how our universe operates in elliptical lines and structures, Three Body Problem developed into an exploration of how curvatures dictate relationships in our universe, ranging from microscopic bodies to the planetary variety.

This is paralleled to relationships between people, and how we negotiate space with one another in those relationships. When choreographing, Paul is highly conscious of the dancers as both bodies and people.

“The way they move through space in relation to each other I treat quite objectively. I’m aware that because they’re people moving in space in relation to each other, there are connotations of relationships. I find that really, really interesting.”

This is most evident in the standout part of Three Body Problem, a part that is spectacularly sensual without being overt. It is also the segment from which the choreography first found its roots using a complicated pattern of numbers that correlate to different bodily motions and interactions.

Two of the three dancers “slow dance” round and around as the third rotates around them, but “slow” is the wrong adjective here; I only use the word to convey the intimacy we see as they press palm to palm, palm to waist to hip and back to hand, none of their hands or limbs resting in any one place, as the third wheel dancer still rotating around the pair, desperate to butt in. And eventually the third succeeds, and one of the pair is left hovering, cycling around the new pair. Over and over, round and round, relentless and reactive, they spin and intersect and interchange like excited electrons.

This intersection is certainly has sexual connotations, but I think to leave it at that is reductive. It doesn’t just evoke intimacy in the human sense, but a kind of subatomic curiosity, like particles fleeing and embracing one another’s charges. As much as the bodies are drawn to one another like positive and negative charges, in the next split second they’re repulsed in a playful, innocent way, spinning away from each other to knock against the next body they encounter.

It’s a demanding piece. Paul has his dancers running, gliding, twisting, reacting without pause, never resting, constantly energised. At one point all three are running around the circular stage in unison as though it were a racetrack. Their movements are dictated just as much by themselves as individual bodies as how they operate as one entity. As Fiona tells me later, “you’re one amongst many that’s part of a larger whole, and you become aware of how that shifts you in your body, in the space, in those around you.”

Esperanza found this complexity as well. “You knew the way each body moved including your own body,” she says, “yet within your own movement there was an unsure feeling of what is/was yours, theirs and what was shared.”

“We came to work as one unit. Our movement became as much each other’s as it was our own, and only some movements were definitely solely ours while other movements were the manifestation of the three of us as moving objects.”

At the end of all this energy, these intricate interactions and reactivity, they finally calm down in the centre of the stage. Their backs are against one another as they form a nucleus there, looking outwards, breathing heavily, able to achieve rest at last.

The three bodies have found how they fit within one another’s own complicated makeup, and are now redefined by their connectivity as individual identities and what took place between them. As Adrienne Rich says, this process “breaks down human self-delusion and isolation. […] in doing so we do justice to our own complexity.”

While the initial spontaneity of the reaction is over and the houselights come back on to the echoes of applause, those forged connections are ongoing outside of the stage of Three Body Problem. Paul, Fiona, Esperanza and Rechelle have touched upon a common human theme that parallels the motions and interrelations of universal bodies, and we’re left contemplating how we negotiate this in our day-to-day interactions with those we, very simply, have the right kind of chemistry with.

Photo credit: All images by Elly Freer.