Part of yet another superb Doc/Fest programme, Alex Whitley’s stellar dance exploration, 8 Minutes, comes to The Octagon for a special preview on 12 June, ahead of its world premiere at Sadler’s Wells in London.

Developed in close collaboration with the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL), and taking the Sun as inspiration, the performance features choreography by Whitley, alongside film by visual artist Tal Rosner and music by electroacoustic musician Daniel Wohl, adding yet another string to the bow of Doc/Fest 2017’s multimedia and cross-genre programme.

We caught up with Alex to talk more about the project.

What was the genesis of 8 Minutes?

It came from RAL Space, the space science centre that I’ve been working with. They in the past two years have had artists-in-residence and have been involved in arts projects as part of their public outreach initiative. I jumped at the chance when I was approached. I’ve used science as a subject matter and inspiration for my work in the past, and so it felt like a very natural thing to take on, and I was especially excited by the prospect of actually getting to work directly with some of the scientists as well.

How did the work of RAL Space inform the project specifically? 

Early on, I was given a presentation by several of the leading scientists there, explaining the kind of work they do. It was quite overwhelming actually, because it’s a huge facility and they’re covering an incredibly vast array of subjects in relation to space science, in terms of their involvement in some of the huge international space missions, like the new James Webb Telescope, for example, which is going to be the replacement for Hubble, and the Solar Dynamics Observatory – a lot of these big projects they’ve been key partners on – as well as having departments that are developing robotics for the Mars landings and manufacturing microscopic instruments for focussing lasers. But it helped to start to point the direction, in terms of how we could find inspiration in some of the work that was being done.

The subject of the Sun was a key focus from the beginning, I guess because of the relatability of the Sun. It’s something that we have a very tangible relationship to, as well as having a very advanced understanding of now, because of modern science and technology. But also, I think RAL were interested in having that as a theme for the piece because of the potential impact that the Sun’s activity can have on our modern communication technology.

Presumably the title of the piece comes from the time it takes for the Sun’s light to reach Earth. Why did this seem significant to you?

It seemed quite a neat way to tie together the scientific and theatrical. Dance is durational. It’s a performance that happens over time. A consideration of time is a really important thing for me as a choreographer – understanding how ideas develop over time, how rhythms are set in motion. Appreciating that there’s light illuminating the world, and that that light left the Sun eight minutes ago, blows your mind in itself.

How are the different elements – dance, film and music – working together in the piece?

Well, they’re still being worked on as we speak, but obviously we’ve been talking about and planning the project for quite some time now.

There’s only so much that dance can do to relate to and understand some of the scientific concepts, and so the visuals are really important in giving a slightly more direct and figurative representation of the subject matter, which freed me up choreographically to explore some more abstract connections.

Similarly, the music adds an awful lot in terms of the mood, and the rhythm and tempo of things, which allows for a different connection to the subject matter. For me, it was important that the piece isn’t just about the abstract science. It’s about the feelings associated with scientific exploration – the sense of awe and wonder that it inspires, something that theatre and dance really deal well with.

The project is noteworthy in that it blurs the lines between science and art. Is this a grey area you enjoyed working within?

Yeah, definitely. I’ve always really enjoyed the fact that dance is traditionally an art form that draws together a lot of different disciplines. We rely on music, lighting design, a set, a costume – and I guess I enjoy exploring what new technologies can open up for dance.

There’s a lot happening in interactive technology and video technology that is opening up new possibilities in terms of how light can be used in theatre and how we can explore kinetic relationships – be that a moving body, a moving light, or a moving image on screen. That’s all choreographic to me.

There are some similarities with your past work, Pattern Recognition, which featured motion-responsive lighting. Has it been challenging ‘syncing’ the dance, audio and video elements this time around?

In some respects it’s easier, because you can plan things in advance. There are different challenges that each one poses. In the interactive work that I’ve done, everyone relies on the technology that is coordinating that interaction, and it’s not often as reliable as you expect it to be, so you have to factor in a lot of variable responses. There’s something appealing in that. That ‘aliveness’ is a very powerful theatrical tool. It’s very effective in concentrating people’s attention.

Tell us more about the creative learning programme attached to the project.

Right from the beginning we felt it important that we were finding ways of connecting with a broader audience, particularly young people, to give them an experience of what this kind of project is about, which is exploring the parallels between artistic and scientific processes. It’s important that we’re targeting primary school children, before they’ve been forced to discriminate between the arts and sciences, which they tend to do in secondary school.

There’s a lot we can understand through movement that can give us a different way into a subject than understanding it cerebrally or theoretically. Everyone learns in slightly different ways and I think often people are put off by either art or science. So giving young people the opportunity to have a lecture from a scientist, have some practical demonstrations of the theory, and then explore those ideas through movement – it’s lots of different potential ways in to understanding a concept, which I feel gives a richer and deeper understanding of it.

8 Minutes comes to The Octagon on Monday 12 June. Tickets are priced at £12/£10 concessions and are available at sheffdocfest.com.

Sam Walby