Dance: Einstein in motion

Ballet Constant Speed is inspired by Einstein’s 1905 publications; the World Year of Physics celebrates their centenary. From the patent office in Bern, Switzerland, Einstein dashed off five papers, all of them seminal work, on three themes: brownian motion, the photoelectric effect and the special theory of relativity.

Relativity, and E=mc2, will be forever associated with Einstein. But it is his work on the photoelectric effect, which established the notion of the ‘quantum’, that Einstein himself regarded as his most revolutionary. The effect describes the release of electrons from a metal when light is shone on its surface. To explain the relation between the energy of the electrons released and the frequency of the incident light, Einstein proposed that light energy is transferred to the electrons in distinct chunks, or quanta. No less significant was his study of fluctuation phenomena within the framework of kinetic-molecular theory — work that recalled the brownian motion seen in the dance of pollen grains in water decades earlier.

Choreographer Mark Baldwin, the artistic director of the Rambert, developed Constant Speed through conversations with Ray Rivers, professor of theoretical physics at Imperial College London. Although he claims to be ignorant of physics, Baldwin was struck by a similarity of language — space, time, energy — between physics and dance. Quite rightly, I think, he shied away from specifically representing relativity in the piece, alluding only in the title to that theory’s central tenet of a constant speed of light. Brownian motion, on the other hand, is a concept easily reflected in the movements and configuration of the dancers. But it is the ideas surrounding the photoelectric effect that dominate Constant Speed.

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