Dancing diatoms

Some years ago when I was living in Melbourne, I saw a film of dancing diatoms, taken through a microscope. Searching amongst some of my old journals, I found reference to the event and to the man who had filmed the diatoms.

Dance, Computers, Multimedia Investigation and Performance, was a one day event held in 1993 at the University of Melbourne. My contribution was The Infinite Tree (1993), a dance film of mechanical and organic movement cycles. It had been compiled from a vocabulary of gestures I had animated using an Amiga computer. The files are sadly no longer accessible, as their formats are now obsolete.

Dr Karien Bond, who was then Senior lecturer in dance at the Institute of Education, presented a paper, Multimedia in dance teaching and research: An overview of resources and methods – speculations on the origins of dance as revealed through video-microscopic images of plant cellular activity recorded by Professor Jeremy Pickett-Heaps.

The talk, as far as I can remember, was an attempt to draw connections between the movement qualities of diatoms and the movements of humans in early development, as a possible inspiration for choreography. I remember leaving the presentation with mixed feelings, unable to follow the spoken argument for the connections, yet connecting strongly, kinesthetically, with the movement of the diatoms. This seemed a good example of the difficulty of using words to argue for such visceral connections. I clearly made some kind of deep connection, since the dancing diatoms are with me still, strongly in my mind.

I have had no success so far locating Dr Bond, or a copy of her paper, but I did find Jeremy Pickett-Heaps on the Cytographics website:

As a young scientist, I became fascinated by electron microscopy. In the late sixties, this technique was dramatically transforming our concept of cellular structure. I concentrated upon cell division and morphogenesis in green algae and then diatoms. As this work progressed, I became increasingly frustrated at trying to recreate dynamic cellular events solely from static images.

A turning point in my career came when I first saw the extraordinary sight of a live diatom undergoing mitosis at high magnification. After borrowing a 16mm. time-lapse camera, I was soon filming algae doing all the things I had studied with the electron microscope. Since then, I have built up a laboratory devoted to the high resolution video imaging and recording of all sorts of cells and microscopic organisms going about their complex and extraordinary lives. It’s the best peep show around!