Professional troupe takes Dance Your PhD contest to another level

2022 winner brews up a fungi-based love story with a lot of help from his friends

February 24, 2022
Povilas Šimonis' Dance Your PhD entry
Source: Povilas Šimonis

Yeast cells can double their population every 100 minutes, but making them the stars of an award-winning music video was a process 20 years in the making. 

The winner of this year’s Dance Your PhD competition, organised annually by Science magazine, has a different feel to its predecessors. Charmingly amateurish production often added to the humour. When things stayed serious, the dancing was an illustration, a flailing diagram. 

Povilas Šimonis, the overall winner for 2022, found out about the oddball event through his theatrical mentor, who said they could make a “serious product, not some amateur production but a really beautiful result”. 

His secret? Being an active participant in theatre for 20 years and doing dance and physical theatre for the past nine. 

“Most of my friends are artists,” said Dr Šimonis, a researcher at Lithuania’s Center for Physical Sciences and Technology and Vilnius University. That meant his director, cast and crew worked without their usual pay. “Even the costume designers and the stage decorators, everyone was professional.” 

The starring all-female dance troupe brandish baguettes: gifts for a distant scientist who appears, rapping, on a television screen. 

“When we were creating the narrative in the beginning I was the main yeast, but in the end we decided I would be a scientist who looks to the yeast, sort of like God or an idol from above.” 

The role of lead yeast went instead to Adelina Skalandytė, a professional actor and Dr Šimonis’ fiancée. He said that the switch was made more apt because yeast is a feminine word in Lithuanian.  

Ms Skalandytė’s character divides asexually to produce the rest of her troupe, who are eventually killed by electric pulses. “It's a tragic story but I think it’s easier to follow”, said Dr Šimonis. 

“Since lyrics, music and video were created by different people and specifically for this project, their forms were constantly evolving; it took a lot of iterations and effort to form a solid, cohesive backbone before filming,” he said.  

“Great dance creates an atmosphere or a world,” said Dance Your PhD judge Matt Kent, from the dance company Pilobolus. “That’s exactly what the winner did.”  

The contest, devised by former Science magazine correspondent John Bohannon, challenges scientists at all levels to explain their research through dance. Finalists are picked from physics, chemistry, biology, and social sciences. 

Dr Šimonis, who pulled together a budget of €1,700 (£1,420) from his institution and lab, said that the prize money would be ploughed into another artistic interpretation of science. “It makes sense to use it as a spark to start something beautiful and purposeful”. 

He finished his PhD a year ago and is now actively looking for a postdoctoral position, with plans to keep his artistic activities as a hobby.

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