“Where do you think thoughts come from?” she asked in a conversational prelude to the show. “Do you think they come from the body?”
If presented with that question herself, Ms. Oberfelder would probably answer yes, as would most anyone who has devoted a lifetime to dance. “I just think dancers, and in general physical people who integrate what they’re thinking through the body, are the most brilliant people,” she said.
Bringing audiences backstage and onstage at Live Arts, “The Brain Piece” is a sequel of sorts to “4Chambers,” Ms. Oberfelder’s 2013 investigation of the human heart. In that intimate work, staged first at a house on Governors Island and then at a former hospital in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, dancers led visitors — no more than 12 at a time — through rooms and corridors representing the heart’s chambers and valves.
Created in consultation with neuroscientists — just as “4Chambers” grew out of discussions with cardiologists — “The Brain Piece” deals with themes like memory, illusion and sensory perception. Its participatory first half leads into a more traditional performance in the theater, augmented by Ms. Oberfelder’s short film “Dance of the Neurons” and other visuals.
“What I realized while working on ‘4Chambers’ is that everything in your heart, everything you feel — it’s all the brain,” she said.
In an early version of the new work, Ms. Oberfelder gave herself the comedic role of a fact-dispensing “brain guru.” But she wasn’t satisfied.
“The poetry of the movement was getting lost in the didacticness of the science,” she said. “So I thought, why not get the audience to try to feel their brains, without telling them how? To set up situations where they’re interacting not only with their minds intellectually but passing that down through the body, being in a physical space with other bodies, making connections with others and with sensation?”
Ms. Oberfelder, 63, began making dances in New York in the 1970s in a style she describes as “super athletic and muscular.” She doesn’t have a scientific background, which may account, in part, for her recent attraction to science. “I’m getting older, and I feel like I have to keep trying new things and being on that adventure,” she said. “I’m trying to be a maker of something I haven’t made yet.”
One step in that adventure, as she embarked on “The Brain Piece,” was a Skype meeting about neurogenesis — the generation of neurons from stem cells — with Ed Lein, a researcher at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. In dialogue with Mr. Lein’s drawings, Ms. Oberfelder and her dancers translated neurogenesis into movement, mimicking the replicating and differentiating cells. That formed the basis for “Dance of the Neurons,” the film that plays about halfway through “The Brain Piece,” as audience members — limited to 72 a show — enter the theater.
Mr. Lein said in a phone interview that his field and Ms. Oberfelder’s seemed like a natural pairing. “One reason why I love neuroscience is there’s really an aesthetic beauty to the architecture of the brain — a choreography, if you will, to the development of that circuitry.”
Audiences, too, may find themselves moving like neurons during “The Brain Piece.” Guiding them through those sections is a delicate art that the dancer Mary Madsen has been fine-tuning.
“We’ve talked a lot about what kind of touch to use, especially when we bring the audience onto the stage — how to approach it with confidence but also with an openness and gentleness,” Ms. Madsen said of rehearsing “The Brain Piece.” (For those who bristle at the thought of audience participation, Ms. Oberfelder gives the option of observing from the sidelines.)
Ms. Madsen is one of three dancers featured in the show’s second half, a suite of vignettes that finds the three hurtling through space and navigating knotty partnering sequences. Though viewers will be seated for this section, Ms. Oberfelder said that she hoped they remain “alive and active in their seats.” As she put it, “I want people to perceive dance like smell, like something that goes right to your brain.”
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