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Dance+: Protein synthesis – an epic on the cellular level

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Sanjoy Roy
A mind-blowing, free-spirited dance film that is both scientifically exact and culturally far out

‘Initiator Factor Two!’ The ecstatic cry, arising from a hippie band playing psychedelic music in a grassy field, greets a dancer in orange leotard and lemon tights as she takes her moment in the limelight. Emerging from a pulsating blob of bodies with anemone arms, she twirls, skips past a jiggly line of people with balloons tied to their heads, and handsprings towards a ragtag gaggle (‘tRNA!’ yelps the vocalist) who are in turn stringing along a shirtless guy in shorts and specs, capering like an imp (‘Amino Acid!’). She tugs her group back towards the balloon people as another amorphous clump of bodies rolls towards them. A shaggy man in a wizard cloak joins hands with a – what is he, a snorkeller? – and they gallop about together. The narration is Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem Jabberwocky spiked with words from a cell biology textbook. There are puffs of smoke, a hooded jester, children and grown-ups, leaping women in bird-of-paradise sleeves; there is body paint and music, green grass and sunshine, and everyone seems euphorically happy.

Far out, as they might have said back then. This will blow your mind.

This is also a rather literal representation of protein synthesis.


Protein Synthesis: an Epic on the Cellular Level (1971)

Protein Synthesis: an Epic on the Cellular Level is a 13-minute dance film made in 1971, at Stanford University, in California’s San Francisco Bay Area. Its 3-minute introductory ‘Protein Primer’ features biochemistry professor (and future Nobel laureate) Paul Berg explaining protein coding and assembly, with the aid of a chalkboard diagram. His presentation is already clear and informative, so why the dance? ‘My diagram is of necessity static,’ he says, ‘but protein synthesis is a dynamic process. This movie tries to bring those dynamic interactions to life.’

The choreographer who brought this dance to life was Initiator Factor Two herself, Jackie Benington. A dancer who went on to perform with Donald McKayle in the 1980s, Benington had won America’s Junior Miss in 1969 (a peculiarly American combination of scholarship programme, talent competition and prom-queen coronation, now rebranded as ‘Distinguished Young Women’) and was taking a masters degree in education at Stanford. There she met – and later married – the film’s director and band member Robert Alan (Gabriel) Weiss, then at Stanford’s Medical School, who was looking for performers from the modern dance faculty for the project.

Benington gathered a small team of dancers to lead the choreographic segments – the ribosomes, the initiator factors, the protein releasing factor – but the vast majority of the 200 people who took part were untrained Stanford students. ‘Fortified with complimentary wine’, they seem as much unleashed as choreographed, and the joyous, free-festival energy that courses through their rolls, runs and waves makes this the least clinical, most spirited of science-based dances you are ever likely to see.

Once seen, never forgotten, the film is not only a striking and remarkably durable illustration of protein synthesis, but a testament to a time, a place. Its music, ‘The Protein Jive Sutra’, has the psychedelic West Coast sound of The Doors or The Grateful Dead, while Jefferson Airplane’s trippy hit White Rabbit was surely the stimulus for its Lewis Carroll text. If the anarchic, hallucinogenic spirit of the Merry Pranksters fires its engines, its ideals are more communal. While New York’s experimental dance scene had its urbane Judson Dance Theatre, the West Coast had Anna Halprin and the San Francisco Dancers Workshop – more outdoorsy, more touchy-feely, combining togetherness with plurality, individuality with community.

In short, the film – educational tool, ‘molecular happening’, choreographic be-in – is both a scientifically exact model of protein synthesis and a poetic expression of the zeitgeist.

Fifty years on, protein synthesis – at the cellular level and on an epic scale – is now formative of our own zeitgeist: the Covid-19 virus uses this exact same process to replicate inside the cell. Impossible to dance about that though, for it would require undistanced, communal choreography – and the virus has already put paid to that. 


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