Courtesy of Emily Coates

Professor Emily Coates ’06 GRD ’11 ’18 radiates the essence of a dancer — she embodies her discipline, consciously and subconsciously. While I fight to retain a presentable posture, with my spine hunching and sinking into her dangerously soft sofa couch, Coates sits perfectly upright, feet flat on the floor, shoulders back and relaxed. Her presence alone is inexplicably serene and elegant. Indeed, she embodies her discipline, every second.

Coates spent her early childhood in Brussels, Belgium, where she was conditioned to associate ballet classes with the hot fudge sundaes which her mother treated her to one at the close of every practice.

“That is what I attribute the spark of my love for ballet to,” she laughs at the amusing beginning to what became a lifelong relationship. When Coates turned six years old, her family moved to Pittsburgh, where she trained at the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater School, run by former New York City Ballet ballerina Patricia Wilde. There, Coates discovered something more to the art form — something deeply captivating about the combination of its physicality and discipline.

At age sixteen, she convinced her parents of her plan to move to New York City and commenced her career at the School of American Ballet. Two years later, in 1992, she was chosen by the NYCB artistic director to join the prestigious company — an opportunity reserved for only approximately two to three students per year. Founded by George Balanchine, arguably the most influential choreographer of the 20th century, NYCB followed the Balanchine style, which fused the world of Russian ballet with American culture. At NYCB, Coates was immersed in a ballet more contemporary than that she was used to: a ballet that is faster, jazzier, nimbler. It was a ballet that seized the audience’s excitement through the “sheer thrill of seeing the human body so beautifully sculpted,” yet engaged in such minutely carved movements.

Young, inquisitive and eager for more, Coates left NYCB in 1998 to experiment with new approaches to ballet. She performed with Mikhail Baryshnikov in his six-member ensemble, the White Oak Dance Project, and later with Twyla Tharp, both highly acclaimed vanguards of modern dance choreography.

In 2003, Coates took a hiatus from full-time dancing and matriculated at Yale as a second-semester sophomore, having accumulated college credits part-time while dancing professionally in New York. At Yale, Coates was drawn to the English major’s writing program and began creating her own work, all the while dancing on the side. In 2006, immediately after finishing her degree, Coates was invited by English and Theater Professor Joseph Roach to jumpstart Yale’s dance curriculum.

“A professional trajectory I could not have envisioned, but in hindsight makes perfect sense,” she says.

During Coates’s dance career, each shift in choreographer, style and professional context paralleled a modification of Coates’ own values and aesthetics, rendering her not only a translator of existing styles, but also an innovator of her very own modus operandi. With NYCB, Coates trained technically; with Baryshnikov and Tharp, she jete-d into novel forms of dance. And at Yale, Coates ventured into the intersection of dance and physics.

In 2011, Coates was paired with particle physicist Sarah Demers, the Horace D. Taft Associate Professor of Physics, with the task of creating a science course for non-science majors that conjoined physics and dance. However, what appeared to be a brief undertaking became Coates’ foray into the interdisciplinary research of dance and physics with her collaborator for eight years.

Coates says that physics and dance attack the same range of questions: What allows us to move the way we do? Can the materials we are composed of speak to the construction and destruction of the universe? What is the next smallest element of our world? Can we push the limit further? Are there limits? What is time? Is it cyclical? Can we do without it?

This year, Coates joined Yale’s Wright Laboratory as an artist-in-residence. She now examines the kinesthetic imagination of the scientists who research the invisible universe — including topics like dark matter, neutrinos and cosmology.

“I am intrigued by their attempts to bring the invisible universe into sensorial view,” Coates says. Perhaps both physicists and dance artists are striving for the same underlying objective: to render the intangible tangible. When pushed beyond the differing ways they engage and concretize their imaginations, one recognizes the inevitable overlap between the two fields’ respective perspectives: their endeavor to address the most fundamental human struggle of making sense of our existence.

“While physicists try to make sense of our cosmos by understanding the behavior of a neutrino, a dance artist does so by, say, understanding time in the context of a live production,” Coates expresses.

Such is the case with “Empty is Also”, a piece Coates collaborated on with sculptor Tamar Ettun. When asked the typical, perplexed spectator’s question: So, what does it really mean? Coates explains that the piece serves as a juxtaposition of sculpture time and dance time.

Coates says, “In the classic sense of a sculpture, you can walk around it. You have time at your own volition to take it in. Dance, however, so often happens in a way that the viewer is at the mercy of its time.”

In essence, “Empty is Also” placed sculpture time within dance time, exploring the fine line that separates the two, then erasing that line to create a new perception of time.

This January, Coates co-authored the book “Physics and Dance with Demers.” Here, the connection between dance and physics is similar to that of dance and sculpture in “Empty is Also,” but in the realm of space-time. In “Physics and Dance,” Coates and Demers first delve into the concrete aspects of their intersection: gravity, force, motion, friction, momentum and turning. They then dip their toes in the more abstract elements of energy, space and time.

Regarding space-time, Coates and Demers delineate the overlap between Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity and choreographer Merce Cunningham’s dance theory. Mirroring Einstein’s declaration that “matter tells space-time how to curve, and curved space-time tell matter how to move,” Cunningham’s contention is that “in dancing…space and time cannot be disconnected.” This interconnectedness of space-time surfaces in both disciplines, whereby the manipulation of one induces a ripple effect in the other. While physicists concretize this idea by mapping gravitational fields’ distortions of surrounding space-time, dance artists do so by experimenting with combinations of beat, speed and stillness to influence the viewer’s special and temporal perceptions. Though realistically and scientifically, time travel is beyond humanity’s reach. Dancers can simulate a world where time and space alter and transform.

Despite the foundation that they share, dance and physics part ways regarding the former’s free interpretation and the latter’s concrete derivation. Upon watching “Empty is Also” for the first time, would I have made the immediate connection between sculptor time and dance time? Truthfully, no. Likely just as every other audience member did, I came to a subjective interpretation, reliant on my own experience and palate. So, is dance a form of abstract art, with its meaning left to the viewer’s discretion? Or is there a single, correct answer — the choreographer’s interpretation?

Coates calls this the “perennial question of dance.” She answers that the work she was trained in leaves the interpretation to the spectator. In fact, the highly acclaimed works of art in dance history that have shaped her outlook are those that have given space to the viewer to draw personal connections to the choreography put before them.

“You have to let go of your desire for the one right answer,” she says.

Once you do so, you will learn to appreciate the freedom given to you to think what you might think, reflect how you might reflect, feel as you might feel. “So even if the composition has not given you an explicit story, you are, as a viewer, being given a human experience.”

Coates jokes that this freedom in interpretation drives her collaborators in science nuts.

However, at the core of dance, she explains “you are dealing with the human body, so nothing is ever abstract. It is about the body; it is about humanity; it is about the particulars of body politics.”

At its core, dance coincides with the disciplines of science.

As I listen to Coates eagerly explain the two fields’ inseparability, I realize that no matter what field we are outwardly affiliated with, the attempt to decipher the constantly reforming human fabric that we abide by is universal. After all, aren’t we all trying to obtain a clearer view of ourselves and our surroundings in the mirror everyday? To decode the beating heart of mankind, the natural world, metaphysical concepts and beyond? At close inspection, none of us are so different in our pursuits.

While physicists observe and ruminate on the world’s infinite natural one-act performances, dancers pirouette along the planisphere, both ultimately converging onto one path. So, perhaps in addition to calling Coates’ work “The Dancer’s Guide to the Galaxy,” more suitably, we ought to deem it “Humankind’s Guide to Humanity, and Beyond.”

Bernice Zhao | bernice.zhao@yale.edu .