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Northwestern University
Photograph of people dancing.left

Fractal Dance

A fractal is a pattern that repeats itself in ever-smaller scales — in snow crystals or clouds, say, or in the motifs in Buddhist mandalas. Fractals appear with striking regularity in African art and culture, so much so that Brooklyn-based choreographer Reggie Wilson sought to incorporate them into a dance piece that would depict the migration of African people throughout the world.

For help, he turned to his dramaturge, Weinberg College Professor of English Susan Manning, who led him to Jesse Wolfson, a doctoral student in the Department of Mathematics.

Wolfson had no prior training in dance, but agreed to work with Wilson and his Fist & Heel Performance Group to help them recognize and express mathematical ideas through choreography. The result is the production Moses(es), which premiered in Philadelphia last fall before playing in New York, Washington and Chicago. The New York Times described the production as a “thrilling work” driven by the energy of fractal patterns.

The experience was illuminating for Wolfson, who found the “sophistication and ubiquity” of fractals throughout African cultures fascinating. He was struck in particular by the design of Bantu cities: large rings of family enclosures built around smaller rings of circular houses, each of which contains a miniature ringed city representing the dwellings of ancestors.

“The self-similarity of the urban design embodies social values such as communality, reciprocity and interconnectedness,” Wolfson says. “It’s been eye-opening to encounter abstract mathematics used to communicate and reinforce specific social meanings.”

The experience has led Wolfson to see the discipline of dance through new eyes.

“By teaching me to see and understand dance as they do, (Wilson and the Fist & Heel group) have helped me better understand and more richly experience an activity and art form that I love,” he says. “It’s been a privilege to work so closely with such talented and creative artists, and it has been deeply satisfying to do so using mathematics and mathematical ideas.”

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