Embodying cognition

Dancer and neuroscientist Elinor Harrison presents ‘Table for Two’ as part of Washington University Dance Theatre Dec. 2-4

Elinor Harrison, a postdoctoral fellow in dance and in physical therapy, works with senior dance majors Ali and Juli Yaniz to create “Table for Two,” which will debut Dec. 2-4 as part of “This is Temporary,” the 2022 Washington University Dance Theatre concert. (Photo: Danny Reise/Washington University)

It was one of those meetings that changes your life.

As a veteran dancer in New York, Elinor Harrison (AB ’01) took a professional interest in the effects of injury and movement impairment. “What if I couldn’t dance?” she remembers wondering. “What does this look like as I grow older?”

While performing with celebrated choreographers such as Jane Comfort, Noémie Lafrance, and Nancy Meehan, Harrison began working with neurology researchers at the Columbia University Motor Performance Laboratory. Then, when a national touring show brought her through St. Louis, Harrison arranged a visit with Gammon Earhart, now director of the Program in Physical Therapy at Washington University School of Medicine and an associate dean for physical therapy.

“I’d seen an article about Dr. Earhart’s lab using dance to treat people with Parkinson’s,” Harrison recalled. Walking out, she thought, “This is my new career.”

Ali and Juli Yaniz rehearse “Table for Two.” (Photo: Danny Reise/Washington University)

‘Table for Two’

Since earning her doctorate in movement science, in 2018, Harrison has remained at WashU as a postdoctoral fellow, splitting her time between Earhart’s lab, where she studies links between music, rhythm and motor control, and the Performing Arts Department (PAD) in Arts & Sciences, where her teaching includes a seminar on “The Neuroscience of Movement.”

“It’s unusual to find someone so highly skilled in two distinct domains,” said the PAD’s David Marchant, a professor of practice in dance. “Ellie combines movement science research with a lifetime of experiential knowledge. That leads to really interesting insights.”

On Dec. 2, 3 and 4, Harrison will debut “Table for Two,” a 12-minute duet, as part of “This is Temporary,” the 2022 Washington University Dance Theatre (WUDT) concert. Performed by senior dance majors (and twin sisters) Ali and Juli Yaniz, the piece draws on Harrison’s research into cognition and motor learning to explore how we process shared memories.

“I believe strongly that cognition is embodied,” Harrison explained. “The ways we move through the world, and experience it through our own bodily sensations, are powerful sources of knowledge.”

Harrison previously choreographed Ali and Juli Yaniz in 2020, as part of the ensemble work “Party for the lonely.” To create “Table for Two,” the three began with a series of interviews, excerpts from which Harrison later integrated into the accompanying soundscape.

“Juli and Ali are highly skilled technical dancers who share a lot of life experience,” Harrison explained. “In the studio, there’s an almost telepathic connection — they figure things out together, often with very little talking. But they don’t always share the same opinions, and they sometimes struggle to be seen as unique individuals, which are themes we develop in the piece.

“Scientifically, yes, fraternal twins such as Ali and Juli share quite a bit of genetic makeup,” added Harrison, who has twin children of her own. “But we are all unique individuals, with our own idiosyncrasies.”

Choreographer Elinor Harrison. (Photo: Danny Reise/Washington University)

‘This is Temporary’

In addition to Harrison, “This is Temporary” will feature “A Swing and A Lilt” by visiting artist Melanie George. As founder of the Jazz Is… Dance Project, George is nationally known for exploring both the West African roots and the improvisational potential of jazz dance.

“One of the risks choreographers take, when making a dance repeatable, is that things can become routine,” said Marchant, who serves as the concert’s artistic director. “Melanie’s dance, while still a structured choreography, brings to jazz dance the same spontaneity and improvisation that define jazz music. She’s a remarkable artist.”

Also on the program will be:

“Worldmaking”: Joanna Dee Das choreographs this piece inspired by the Hindu god Shiva. “Lord Shiva is both creator and destroyer of the universe,” Dee Das explained. “Things fall apart, and then we find a way back to each other.”

“The Waltz of the Flowers”: Christine Knoblauch-O’Neal, director of the master’s in fine arts program in dance — who will retire this year after more than three decades in the PAD — choreographs this “new look at an old chestnut.”

“Slow Fashion”: In a new work for 11 dancers, Marchant explores how live dance impacts perceptions of time. “In our highly scheduled, clock-ruled world, time seems linear and consistent,” Marchant said. “But in the lived experience, time is very elastic and can feel faster or slower depending on our subjective context.”

“Foli (Rhythm)”: Visiting artist Diadie Bathily, founder of the Afriky Lolo dance company, choreographs this work for six dancers, which explores the importance of rhythm in everyday life.

Tickets and performances

Performances of “This is Temporary” begin at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Dec. 2 and 3, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 4. Performances take place in Edison Theatre, located in the Mallinckrodt Student Center, 6465 Forsyth Blvd.

Tickets are $20, or $15 for seniors, students and WashU faculty and staff, and free for WashU students. Tickets are available through the Edison Theatre Box Office. For more information, call 314-935-6543 or visit pad.wustl.edu.

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