Professor, students celebrate NASA’s history

Dancers perform in a rehearsal of "Remember the Future."
Dancers perform in a rehearsal of "Remember the Future." Photo credit: Allie Richter.

An interdisciplinary collaboration will help the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) celebrate its storied history and accomplishments in a performance on May 18 at the Christopher Newport University Ferguson Center for the Arts in Newport News.

The NASA Langley Centennial Tribute includes the new dance work, titled “Remember the Future,” inspired by NASA Langley’s rich history. Developed and choreographed Amy VanKirk, assistant professor in the Department of Dance at Radford University, the movement highlights NASA’s past, present and looks towards the future of the program. VanKirk developed the piece after interviewing ten subject matter experts – both former and current employees working at NASA’s Langley Research Center.

“I chose to focus on the experiences of the NASA employees, so I selected a wide range of experts that worked over various time periods and in different Langley directorates. Their experiences were inspirational, informative and surprising, and their passion for their work was very evident,” VanKirk said.

VanKirk’s interest in science – particularly space and astronomy – led her to make the connection with NASA Langley. Through her research, she learned that the development processes employed by choreographers and the NASA researchers are similar.

“People think that dance and science are on very different spectrums when in reality they have plenty of cross over,” she said. “One of the experts, aerospace engineer Nathanael Miller, works on mission natural selection; sifting through ideas and sending forward the surviving ideas that his team believes have a feasible chance of becoming space missions. He has a chart that illustrates the trial and error process. My choreographic process is very similar.”

Assistant Professor of Dance Amy VanKirk instructs her dancers during rehearsal.

Amy VanKirk, assistant professor of dance, instructs her dancers during rehearsal.

VanKirk is working with David Roth M.A. ’16, who created an original composition for the piece. A projected motion graphics component was designed by Department of Art Instructor Heather Walters and incorporates multimedia elements from the NASA archives.

“Every week I shared rehearsal videos and the visual choreographic map that I was constantly updating. There was a row for music, movement and visuals that all the collaborators could refer to. The music section described the sentiment I was going for in each section, and the visual section laid out a timeline of important images to be used,” VanKirk said.

During the creative process, VanKirk worked with her students to create a plan regarding the concepts outlined during her research.

With notes and inspirational images in-hand, VanKirk met with her chosen dancers – Radford University students Brigitte Manga, Kelly Noah, Matthew Robinson Denise Urban and understudy Zoe Couloumbis – to explain the concepts VanKirk wanted to represent in the dance.

The structure of the dance was created in chronological order and covers everything from hand-calculated equations, early aeronautics research, rocket launches, sonic booms, Earth science and future space missions.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for Radford students to perform in a unique show at a beautiful venue,” VanKirk said. “The students were very involved in the creative process an inquisitive about the science behind it. It’s been really exciting to share this with them.”

The project was funded in part by a CVPA Research and Scholarly Project Grant. 

May 10, 2017
Max Esterhuizen