Talking to Professor Nicky Clayton FRS, Professor of Comparative Cognition at Cambridge University and talented dancer, debunks a lot of stereotypes, not only about scientists but the way many of us live our lives by separating artistic and scientific endeavour. 

Professor Clayton became scientist-in-residence of Rambert Dance Company in May 2011 and has worked on successful dance works alongside her renowned collaborator, Rambert’s Artistic Director, Mark Baldwin, including The Comedy of Change, based on Darwinian principles to commemorate Darwin’s 200th anniversary. Most recently they launched Seven for a secret, never to be told, an exploration of childhood. Together, the two have created a highly unusual but successful collaboration – and one that is unique.

So how do the worlds of science and dance collide? Professor Clayton explains it’s all about movement. Interested in the behaviour of animals from a very early age, she was driven to study birds through a fascination with their elegance and grace. “The magic of movement is what I’m all about”, she explains.

Her study of social and physical cognition in corvids (members of the crow family) has won world wide acclaim. So what would it surprise us to learn about the world of birds? “Some birds are as clever as chimpanzees – and that’s quite a radical finding”, she explains. “My research shows corvids are as clever as primates. In fact, my husband and collaborator, Nathan Emery and I call them ‘feathered apes’.”

Nicky says we are guilty of failing to give birds enough credit for their intelligence – that the phrase ‘bird brain’ should be replaced with ‘brainy bird’. However, she is keen to stress that not all birds have this level of intelligence. “I don’t mean all birds, but there are some that are particularly clever, especially crows”. What makes this intelligence all the more interesting is how the birds do it. Nicky explains that the structure of their brains is very different to that of an ape or a human. In fact, she compares their brains, with a nuclear structure, to the structure of a fruit cake, in comparison with the much more familiar “six layered German chocolate cake, or Sachertorte” that is the human brain.

It might surprise people to learn that there are great similarities between humans and birds. “In some ways birds see the world the same we do”, she says. “They have amazing visual acuity and depend on vision and audition, much as humans do”.

Of course there are significant implications to all this – not least of which is how the intelligence of animals with such different brains has evolved.

Clearly Nicky devotes an enormous amount of time and energy to her research, but what of her dancing? How do big ideas in science translate into big ideas in dance? She has two simple answers. “The fact I’m a dancer is key to it. I have a certain understanding of the body and how to create beautiful movement. That’s so important in terms of translating ideas – for example, for The Comedy of Change, as a scientist I could have gone down the route of translating the ideas of transcription and replication – but I didn’t think that would work. I don’t want my ideas to be too literal, for example, I don’t want to create a show about how DNA works.“

Nicky also emphasises the crucial importance of her partnership with Mark Baldwin. “The other thing is the way Mark and I work”, she explains. “We have many commonalities, Mark isn’t scared of science and did biology as part of his undergraduate degree, and I have been a keen dancer since the age of four, so when we work together there are so many crossovers.  Our main aim [with the choreographic ideas] is to make something beautiful, to demonstrate the sheer athleticism and talent of the dancers. Mark is simply brilliant at it.”

But how does she get her ideas in the first place? She admits it’s hard to know where to begin. “In terms of ideas, there are so many to explore and so many directions to take them, which could be overwhelming. So my job in coming up with themes is to provide some sort of framework. When I say framework, it’s not about creating too many constraints but giving life and imagery to ideas. We are back to the magic of movement and our mutual fascination with patterns and process.“

How she brings her ideas to life is clearly something she has put a lot of thought into. “One [process] requires words – either description or prescription”, she explains. “It’s about choosing words to get ideas across. That works for most things in everyday life. But in the world of dance and analysing animal behaviour, we need a different process, one that does not rely on words.”

That leads to Nicky’s second process of communication, the ‘magic of movement’: “My ideas and my eye for detail inspire movement and that’s where choreography comes in. Movement says things words cannot convey. This happens as a scientist, for there are times when I’m giving a presentation and it’s easier to show a movie clip of the bird’s behaviour than to describe it using words – because you see with your own eyes what’s going on. They say a picture tells a thousand words; I reckon movement can convey tens of thousands.”

This vision is what helps her to so successfully interpret the behaviour of the birds she studies. “I have to see through their eyes and I can only do this by spending a lot of time watching their movement and trying to use my intuition and experience to put my mind in theirs. The birds are the key – if I don’t present my experiments in a way the birds will respond to then I won’t have meaningful results. It’s this complex process that generates the ideas on which to base the design of the next experiment.”

This basis of her research is mirrored in her ideas for dance, she explains. “You have to imagine what will look beautiful and think about what the audience will appreciate. But you also have to translate all that to the dancers or you won’t have a performance. It’s a hugely collaborative and complex process, and one that Mark is amazing at. It is this interplay between movement and ideas – that inspires us and allows us to create, to produce, and to perform.”

This link between big ideas in science and the arts was at the heart of One Culture, a recent series of events at the Royal Society seeking commonalities between the two.  As a Fellow herself, how important does Nicky think it is for an organisation like the Society to get involved in this kind of activity? “On a personal level it was absolutely brilliant to be involved in One Culture”, she says. “The very fact I have the Royal Society right behind me speaks volumes, because it removes any doubt that was ever in my mind about my dance, and my collaboration with Mark and Rambert Dance Company being taken seriously. That’s just fabulous.”

Aside from the personal connection, she’s keen to emphasise how important it is that traditional divides between the arts and science are overcome. “Writ large the connection between the two is so important”, she says. “Historically there was not this divide between science and the arts that we witness today. In the age of da Vinci, it was all about creative thinking and good ideas. We need to head back to where we were then – a scientist can be passionate about art and transcend boundaries.”

Nicky and Mark have achieved much that transcends those boundaries. Did she ever imagine she would have the opportunity to work with an arts organisation in this way? Her answer is that no but fate has a lot to do with it. “My motto is intellectual curiosity and enthusiastic serendipity. Without intellectual curiosity you might fail to even see the ideas or make the critical connections. And without enthusiasm the great ideas could so easily pass you by. But without serendipity you may not get those opportunities in the first place. Serendipity meant I met Mark and became Scientist-in-Residence at Rambert Dance Company.”

That serendipity came in the form of a New Year’s day party in 2009 where she met Stephen Keynes, Darwin’s great-grandson, who also happens to be a great friend of Mark. “Stephen knew Mark was working on the choreography of evolution and looking for a scientist to work with. That was a really lucky break. Everything else stemmed from there”, she says.

The pair met for Sunday lunch at Keynes’ house in Cambridge a couple of weeks later and it was soon clear they could work together. “It just felt so right. The moment Mark and I started talking there was a massive connection. We have minds that work in very compatible ways and I can’t underestimate how much that matters.”

However it works, the results of their collaboration are clear. To see them for your own eyes take a look at the University of Cambridge’s 800th anniversary video or visit Rambert.

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