Bird’s-eye view

A professor who studies the mentality of crows is co-creator of Rambert Dance Company’s new production coming to Bradford. Nick Ahad asks what they have in common

As a theology undergraduate, I spent considerable time studying the crossover point between science and religion. At first glance, the two appear to occupy very different camps. Closely inspected, the antagonisms and congruences that exist between the two were fertile ground for academic exploration.

For science and religion, so it goes for science and art. One suspects that the Venn diagram featuring the subjects of science and any artform – let’s say contemporary dance – features an even smaller crossover point.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

It would appear not, at least so far as the Rambert Dance Company is concerned. One of the world’s leading contemporary dance outfits, it is also the first to employ a scientist in residence. And far from this being a gimmick, the post appears to have had an impact on the work the company creates.

The scientist in possession of this unique position is a perfect fit for it. Nicky Clayton appears to have been nurtured for the role most of her life. “I have always danced, seemingly all my life – I have always seen the world through movement,” she says.

In academia she is professor of comparative cognition in the department of experimental psychology at Cambridge University – the first woman to hold the position.

She is also a fellow of the Royal Society, the British Psychological Society and a zoology graduate of Oxford University. Being absolutely mad about dancing is another aspect of her remarkably interesting CV. “For years I lived this sort of double life of a scientist by day and a dancer by night, she says. “I dance about 16 hours a week, mainly Latin style dances, and I teach Argentinian Tango.

“I have danced since I was four years old and for years it was nothing other than a wonderful hobby.”

It may have stayed that way were it not for an encounter at a party. As the story unravels of how Prof Clayton became the world’s only dance company scientist in residence it seems to be increasingly – as she herself puts it – “full of wonderful serendipity”.

She was at a New Year’s Day party in 2005 when she met “a wonderful octogenarian” called Stephen Keynes. He just happened to be both the great-grandson of Charles Darwin and a close friend of Mark Baldwin, the former dancer who has led Rambert since 2002 as artistic director.

“I was talking about my passion for dancing and he said he would love to introduce me to Mark.” The pair met for Sunday lunch at Keynes’ house in Cambridge later that month and the chemistry was immediate.

“Something happened, we just clicked. He is fascinated by birds, so I talked about my work, then I showed him my collection of dance shoes which I keep in the boot of my car. We spent the afternoon talking about ideas and about dancing and we realised that there were so many similarities between us, we were really synchronised in so many ways.

“Within hours of meeting, we were experimenting with some tango steps in the kitchen.”

The day following the lunch, Prof Clayton received a call from Baldwin’s secretary asking if she would like to collaborate on the company’s next piece – The Comedy of Change, a piece being created by Baldwin as part of the celebration of the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth.

Prof Clayton says: “I wasn’t entirely sure what my involvement was going to be, but in the end I worked really closely with Mark and was really quite involved in helping create the finished piece.”

Although Prof Clayton has a deep and obvious passion for dance as well as her chosen professional field, it would surely have seemed to her that never the twain should meet. She even suggests as much herself by referring to her dance and her day job as having “a double life”.

She was clearly aware that the two worlds occupy very different positions for most who work within them. “When I spoke to Mark and he suggested I work on the piece I thought it was a wonderful opportunity. But I wasn’t sure what the university and my head of department would make of it.

“Fortunately, he could see that the collaboration was a perfect opportunity to provide public communication about science and it was a chance for Cambridge University to have a connection with a dance company which it wouldn’t otherwise have.

“When I became a fellow of the Royal Society I wondered what they would make of it and again they thought it was a brilliant connection. I think everyone has regarded this as a win-win all round.”

What made Prof Clayton such a large contributor to the Darwin production – and the reason she has since become an integral part of the company – is not just that she is well versed in dance, but because of the particular area of study in which she has been involved.

In her department at Cambridge University, her research focuses on corvid cognition – studying the remarkable intelligence shown by birds of the crow family, which have a similar brain capacity to very young humans.

When she begins talking about the work, the overlap of science and dance begin to reveal themselves.

“I am essentially studying what it is like to think without words. I am fascinated by the elegance of the movement of birds but my particular study is in the birds that think without being able to use words,” she says.

“In 2005 I began to work with children as well, studying how they too think without words. I also noticed how a child of two-years-old has no concept of today or tomorrow, but lives entirely in the moment and comparing that with the birds that appear to have a similar brain capacity.”

So here she was, pondering the notions like thinking without words and the nature of elegant movement – and it’s not hard to see how Mark Baldwin saw something in her that made him think she would be a useful addition to the company.

“The first time we spoke he said he was surprised by just how much I thought in terms of movement, but it seems very natural to me,” she says.

All of this has come together at the perfect moment. Baldwin was due to create his fourth new work for Rambert, in the company’s 85th anniversary year and, after the success of working together on Comedy of Change, decided to commit to work in tandem with his scientist in residence. The decision was made that they would collaborate entirely on a piece of work together.

The result is Seven for a Secret, Never to be Told. The new work, coming to Bradford’s Alhambra Theatre this month, is based on the nursery rhyme about magpies (One for sorrow, two for joy...).

Baldwin is no stranger to combining what seem like incompatible academic disciplines. He took a degree in Fine Art and Biology before turning to dance. “As an artist, I create very instinctively,” he says. “Having Nicky in the room as well, means that she can explain and give reason to my instincts.

“She gave a talk to the whole company and was so eloquent when explaining her ideas about the work and about how the science she does every day relates to the work we created in the studio.”

Clearly, Prof Clayton and Baldwin can see the benefits of working together, but what about that other, most important element, that sometimes gets forgotten: the audience?

Does a dance company becoming the first in the world to employ a scientist in residence, actually mean anything to those of us simply watching the work?

Baldwin and Prof Clayton insist it makes for a piece of work with greater depth and understanding. And it’s not hard to agree that a piece that derives from a scientist’s years of work and her collaboration with a choreographer, rather than a couple of weeks in a studio, will have more happening underneath the surface of the piece.

There is also a bigger picture here. Prof Clayton believes that sea changes are happening in the worlds of both science and dance and that both have reached a critical moment at the same time.

She is one of the subjects for the Radio 4 series devoted to popularising The Life Scientific. This, she delightedly reveals, will be broadcast on her birthday.

“All of a sudden it feels like science isn’t just for the weird nerds in white coats.

“With science programmes becoming more mainstream, with shows like The Life Scientific, non-scientists seem to be becoming a lot more interested. I think that is down to lots of different things. One of the main ones is that we are simply being more open. People are interested, but we are becoming better at helping non-scientists understand our work and what we do.

“While there has been a surge in interest in science, there has been a parallel happening in the dance world, which was at one time thought to be difficult to understand. And if you didn’t get it, you weren’t part of the club.

“As the internet has become a more regularly used tool, dance companies have opened themselves up and become much better at explaining their process and their art.

“It has made for this wonderful moment of enthusiastic serendipity.”

A moment in which a dance company with a scientist in residence somehow makes perfect sense.

Rambert Dance Company, Seven for a Secret tour, comes to Bradford Alhambra, November 23 to 25. Tickets 01274 432000.

Prof Nicky Clayton is the subject of Radio 4’s The Life Scientific on November 22, 9am to 10am.