Embodying the microbiome through dance

A performance piece where dancers take on microorganisms.

Dancers take on microorganisms in “Balancing Act.” Photo: Douglas Levere

By Sally Jarzab


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A quick look at how dance can help us understand the microbial worlds in and around us.

The human-microbial ecosystem seems to be something everyone is thinking about these days. Research scientists. Laypeople. Even choreographers.

All three parties came together recently in “Balancing Act,” a performance piece commissioned by GEM, UB’s Genome, Environment and Microbiome Community of Excellence. Repeat exhibitions at the Buffalo Science Museum brought in a diverse audience, including groups of elementary school students, who gained new insight into the many bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms that inhabit their bodies.

Performers from the Anne Burnidge Dance company led viewers through a space suggestive of the digestive tract to take in a series of vignettes featuring video, song, spoken word and, of course, dance, performed so up-close that watching it gave the impression of looking through a microscope.

Burnidge, an associate professor in UB’s Department of Theatre and Dance, said the project developed in two directions. One involved direct representations of microbial processes presented as an abstract modern dance piece. The other was a bit more fanciful.

“We took an imagistic, imaginative approach to the research,” says Burnidge, noting all that she learned about the delicacy of balance in our digestive processes, the hidden benefits of the germs we pick up from the natural environment and the possibility that our microbes may even impact our love lives. “I found all of this fascinating in a very evocative way that we just wanted to have fun with,” she says. Thus, dancers were alternately smearing themselves with yogurt, building teetering towers with food packages and immersing themselves in the dirt.

The discipline-blending project got its start casually, says Burnidge. The co-director of GEM, Jennifer Surtees, happens to be her neighbor. “She walked down the street and said, ‘Hey, do you want to be a part of this?’ And I jumped in with both feet.”