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Light movers

Maggie Lee watches physicists and dancers working together to explain Einstein to everyone

If they were alive today, Marie Rambert and Albert Einstein would be equally delighted by the Rambert Dance Company's latest educational project. Over the past year in schools and colleges across the country, Rambert's education team has produced 83 dance workshops that energetically communicate three of Einstein's key discoveries about space, speed and light.

The workshops are an ingenious example of how artists and scientists can collaborate to promote innovative ways to learn about science. Mark Baldwin, Rambert's artistic director, explains: "To celebrate the centenary of Einstein's 1905 discoveries, the Institute of Physics asked us to create a performance that demonstrates how physics and dance can fire the creative imagination. This inspired me to create Constant Speed as part of our current repertoire. I hope in the process of exploring Einstein's concepts, I have created something that is fun both to watch and to perform."

Whether scientifically or artistically orientated, it is difficult to remain unmoved by a performance of Constant Speed. A dazzling display of athleticism underpinned by the disciplines of dance playfully demonstrates the principles of physics in motion. From a teacher's perspective, Rambert workshops also provide insights into pupils' learning styles and capabilities.

Kate Scanlan, Rambert's education director, says: "Working closely with Mark, we developed workshops using movements from Constant Speed. Our animateurs (community dance tutors) take these into schools and colleges along with a resource pack which they leave with teachers."

The resource pack works on two fronts: it helps dance students understand the principles of physics by translating them into a dance context and provides science students with reference points into the world of dance, using the language of science.

Professor Peter Main from the Institute of Physics (IoP) says his colleagues were thrilled when Rambert accepted their commission. "As Einstein's physics are not generally on the curriculum, this seemed to be an imaginative way to get his ideas across. We wanted to focus on the random movement of molecules (Brownian motion), the theory of relativity (based on the assumption that the speed of light is constant to all observers, inspiring the name of the performance, Constant Speed) and Einstein's observations that different coloured lights move at different frequencies."

How does this work in practice? Workshops (which can be a half or a full day) typically begin with a video, demonstrating the context in which Constant Speed was created. This is followed by a warm-up session and a set of tasks. Students are encouraged to think creatively: for example devising dance movements for molecules and different coloured lights, based on the knowledge they have acquired of the three principal theories that Constant Speed explores.

Kate says: "We tailor our workshops to work with youngsters at all levels, from the age of eight upwards. We aim to work closely with teachers to create an exhilarating environment, where we can introduce students to physics through the dynamics of dance and scientists to the joys of dance."

For both Rambert and the IoP, inspiration springs from a desire to make their central passion accessible to a wide audience. It works both ways. Mark, who readily admits to knowing "virtually nothing" about physics, said the lessons he received from Professor Main and his colleague Professor Ray Rivers were fascinating. "Just as we do when creating dance, Ray used metaphors to explain Einstein's ideas about atoms, light and space and time," he says. "This enabled me to translate the theories into a visual performance. I think the physicality of dance sometimes helps young people grasp concepts more quickly and in turn accelerates their learning."

Yvette Jarvis, head of physical education at St Angela's Ursuline School in Forest Gate, London, agrees. She believes that one of Rambert's distinguishing features is their approach and rapport with teachers. "Teaching and learning are at the forefront of what they do," she says. "Rambert has an excellent understanding of what schools need in dance and education. You always know that you'll be working with quality animateurs who will help you identify new ways of imparting learning with your class."

With comprehensive study notes and a resource pack, Yvette believes the dance workshops are accessible to teachers of all disciplines. From a student's perspective, Laura Harvey, one of Rambert's animateurs, believes that "youngsters quickly learn that there are great similarities between the language of physics and dance and rapidly come to realise that there's a mental discipline to dance as well as a physical one. But I guess ultimately they come to learn that physics is all around us and part of our everyday lives" - neatly demonstrating how the arts and science can work in tandem.

* For further information and to book workshops (pound;130-pound;160) contact the education department at the Rambert Dance Company

'Constant Speed" will form part of a triple bill by Ballet Rambert at Sadler's Wells, May 23-27

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