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Groundbreaking performance explores disease transmission

Posted on 9 June 2014

The world premiere of a contemporary performance piece and interactive installation at the University of York will combine dance and cutting edge video and sound technology with scientific research to explore disease transmission.

Part of the York Festival of Ideas, TRANSMISSION is inspired by the similarities between the spread of ‘infectious’ ideas through social networks such as Facebook and Twitter and the transmission of real-world diseases like swine flu through human populations. 

The performance will dramatically present the dynamics of infection and immunity using sensors embedded in dancers’ costumes and infra-red cameras. The new wireless technology – specially created for the performance - will allow the dancers’ movements to ‘map’ specific patterns of disease transmission, leaving traces of light and sound behind them.  

Held at the University’s Department of Theatre, Film and Television from 19 to 22 June, the groundbreaking event aims to engage the public with infectious disease research and to promote a better understanding of the central role of transmission in disease evolution and control. 

TRANSMISSION is led by award-winning artist and stage designer Becs Andrews in collaboration with Professor Michael Brockhurst, an evolutionary biologist at the University of York; choreographer Simon Birch from Falmouth University's Academy of Music and Theatre Arts; composer Jon Hughes, from York’s Department of Music; and the team behind digital dance performance danceroom Spectroscopy - Tom Mitchell and Phill Tew. Bespoke engineering is provided by Seb Madwick. 

Professor Brockhurst, Chair of Evolutionary Biology in York’s Department of Biology, said: “Transmission is the crucial step in a parasite’s life cycle which determines its evolutionary fitness. It is transmission that makes a disease infectious and able to cause epidemics, and it is transmission that we try to block with healthcare interventions such as vaccination and hand-washing. In order to predict and control epidemics in human populations we must first understand transmission.”  

Becs Andrews conceived TRANSMISSION during her time as DARE Cultural Fellow in Opera-Related Arts (Scenography), working with Opera North and the University of Leeds. 

Now a Visiting Research Associate with York’s Department of Music, Becs Andrews said: “TRANSMISSION combines cutting-edge technology and fluid movement to create a sonic and visual world where even the smallest interactions leave behind a trace. Through the use of powerful non-verbal metaphors for transmission, it creates digital maps of sights and sounds on live choreographed dance performances. 

“Our aim is to communicate the underlying evolutionary processes and patterns that exist in epidemiology and how disease evolves. As scientific ideas are embedded deeply in the choreography, it means the performance can be enjoyed on many levels, both by those who understand the science and those who do not, but are curious to learn more.” 

TRANSMISSION, which brings together artists, scientists, musicians and dancers, is supported by the University of York’s Centre for Chronic Diseases and Disorders (C2D2), DARE, the University of York, the Wellcome Trust and Falmouth University’s Academy of Music and Theatre Arts. It is funded by the National Lottery through Arts Council England’s Grants for the Arts programme. 

TRANSMISSION is on show at the Black Box, Department of Theatre, Film and Television on the University of York’s Heslington East campus.  Evening performances from 19 to 22 June at 7pm and 8.15pm. Entry is free but booking is essential. There is drop in entry to the family-friendly daytime interactive installation on 21 and 22 June from 1-5pm, when visitors can try out the technology used by the dancers. 

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