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Speaking Through Movement

A VCU professor's new modern dance company tackles some big concepts.

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Relativity. String theory. The mysterious behavior of subatomic particles. These are topics one might discuss at a symposium on theoretical physics. But they're not typical inspirational territory for your average modern dance choreographer.

One needs only to skim the mission statement of Amaranth, a new Richmond-based dance company, to realize that its creator, 37-year-old Scott Putman, is anything but typical in his philosophical approach. It reads like a dissertation on the interconnectedness of science and art, an intersection where less adventurous creative souls dare not tread.

"What is possible in physics," explains Putman, "I would like to think is possible in dance and vice versa."

Putman, who ran a Chicago-based dance company before earning a master's degree in dance at the University of California at Irvine, is an associate professor of dance and choreography at Virginia Commonwealth University. Last year he headed the VCU dance department's first-ever study-abroad program, traveling with a group of students to Costa Rica for five weeks of intensive training and performing. Out of that experience, Amaranth, named for a grain native to Central America, was born.

"It was one of those moments in time where things seem to congeal," says Putman. "I think it's important to listen when the time is right."

The company's debut performance is Thursday, Nov. 30, at Grace Street Theater with an evening-length multimedia collaboration called "Experiment in White." Each of six sections in the work deals with movements in modern physics and their relationships to universal human experiences like love and spirituality.

The project is the culmination of four years of investigation for Putman, who became enthralled with the relationship between cutting-edge physics and Eastern spirituality, an idea that has entered pop culture by way of the "enlightened cinema" movement popularized by films like "What the Bleep Do We Know!?"

"I found this sort of window of connections," Putman says. "It's interesting how they're completely parallel. It sent me off on this journey."

In the spirit of scientific exploration, Putman has a theory of his own: "Choreography is the art of shaping energy in space." With "Experiment in White," he attempts to justify his philosophy.

Adding yet another layer to this metaphysical cake, Putman also draws parallels between physics and time-bending movements in modern art like cubism, fauvism and futurism, examples of which are used in the video projections that accompany the work.

If all of this sounds like heady stuff, not to worry, there's some gorgeous dancing, too. Clad, as the title suggests, entirely in white, Putman's dancers sweep and flow through the space like eddies in a tidal pool. His experience choreographing for ballet companies shines through in the dancers' pleasing precision and grace, but his roots in the modern tradition are clear from the asymmetrically designed chaos he uses to craft the stage space.

The dancers' bodies double as canvases on which lighting designer Adam Chamberlin and multitalented media artist Robbie Kinter work their magic. The work's final section, "Transcending Chronology," even features a live video feed of the dancers in the space. The images are then projected on the audience in a real-time time warp of sorts.

Putman doesn't expect audiences to drag out their college physics textbooks before attending the show. "These things are inspired by these ideas," he says. "But I by no means as an artist expect you to understand them as I do."

He does hope, however, that something of the essence of his inspiration will come through.

"How it translates is by settling — settling into the physical and intellectual body, allowing the concepts and ideas to speak through the movement. … These are universal principles that we all feel. There are keyholes into the work for just about anyone."

Expect to see more from Amaranth. Putman has established the group as a nonprofit organization and has begun holding classes regularly with the specific intent of training dancers who can "speak [his] language."

Proceeds from this weekend's performance will benefit Richmond's Meals on Wheels, VCU Dance Fund, Tao Mountain's research/volunteer grants for tsunami rebuilding and Ground Zero Dance Company's community arts center. S

Amaranth's "Experiment in White" takes place Nov. 30-Dec. 2 at 8 p.m. in the Grace Street Theater. Tickets are $20. Call 828-2020 or visit www.amarantharts.com for more information.

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