Arts at the Van Vleck: spotting (moon) in the dome

From John Cage to Eiko Otake, we’ve seen that the Van Vleck Observatory can be a welcoming space for art. While these artistic giants have made great use of the space, students, on the other hand, have not truly capitalized on the observatory as an art studio or performance space. That is, until now. Cut to: ( moon ), a performance art piece by Helen Handelman, Wesleyan University class of 2016.


Poster for ( moon ), a performance in the Van Vleck Observatory by Helen Handelman ’16

The performance took place in the observatory dome on November 13, 14, and 15 of last year (2015), just a week after Otake’s performance. ( moon ) is an ensemble performance based on the Cold War Space Race. Handelman, a Religion and Theater Studies double major, became interested in the topic last summer when she visited the Bullock Texas State History Museum and saw an exhibit about the year 1968, the year of the Apollo 8 mission. Since her visit in Texas, Handelman has begun writing a thesis about that celestial body that orbits the earth, and she is using ( moon ) as a creative way for her to explore her thesis further.

When I talked to Handelman about her piece and why she chose the Van Vleck Observatory as the performance location, her answer was surprising: she admitted that she had never actually been in the observatory before scouting it out as a performance space. Once she saw it though, she knew this was the place for ( moon ). She found the dome space to be “majestic and beautiful” noting that it “kind of evokes something like a church or the vastness of space in its openness and bigness.” To be sure, Handelman used every part of the dome for her performance: the walls were a place for shadows to lurk; the telescope was something for the actors to climb towards; and the landing was a space for everyone to move and dance.


Performance of ( moon ) at the Van Vleck Observatory.

Going forward, Helen hopes that more students will use the Van Vleck Observatory for performance. She feels that the VVO is specifically special for artistic explorations, explaining, “it has a lot of warm intimate spaces as well as the open and cold space of the dome….The fact that there are only a few rooms [in the building] means that the space of the observatory is contained in a way that I think makes art-experiencing conducive and exciting.”

The Van Vleck Observatory has always been a great place to see stars in the sky, and now visitors can see different kinds of stars up close down here on Earth.

Arts at the Van Vleck: An Exploration of Eiko Otake’s “A Body In An Observatory”

World-renowned dancer and performance artist Eiko Otake bestowed her gifts on the Wesleyan community–and the astronomy community–just this past fall. On November 6 and 7, 2015, Otake performed a piece entitled “A Body in an Observatory.” The titular observatory, of course, was our very own Van Vleck. “A Body in an Observatory” is part of the artist’s larger series, “A Body in Places.”

Otake at beginning of dance performance

Eiko Otake at the start of her performance, “A Body in an Observatory.” In this moment, Otake is just outside the observatory overlooking Foss Hill and College Row. Photo courtesy of Wesleyan University’s Center for the Arts. Image by Sandy Aldieri of Perceptions Photography.

Eiko Otake and the 20'' telescope

Eiko Otake and the eye-piece of the 20” telescope. Roy Kilgard in background. Photos courtesy of Wesleyan University’s Center for the Arts. Image by Sandy Aldieri of Perceptions Photography.

On her professional website, Otake details her thinking on the performance: “I imagine how, 100 years ago, people must have been so excited in seeing this great telescope arrive to the Middletown community in 1916. How moved people must have been when they saw the stars in a way they had not seen before. Having spent some time in the observatory with the kind and patient Astronomer Roy Kilgard and local star enthusiasts, I wondered how I could have not been more tempted to see so deeply into the night sky. Beautiful, is the seemingly endless cosmos that continues expanding. Time and distance entwine in seeing stars and far into space. Beautiful, also, is the human curiosity striving for far places. It makes me feel a bit fearful, however, how far humans strive. Our body meanwhile remains our commonality (yet unknown), a vehicle to other places, a home to rest, and a reminder of our very limits of both the length and space that one person’s life occupies. My body is my measuring stick.”

Although all eyes are focused on Otake herself during the performance, the work is a product of collaboration. In fact, Roy Kilgard, professor of Astronomy at Wesleyan, worked closely with Otake in preparing, rehearsing, and ultimately performing this work of art. Among his many typical responsibilities, Professor Kilgard is the facilities manager of the observatory’s telescopes and computers, so

Eiko Otake and the 20'' telescope

Eiko Otake and the 20” telescope in a rehearsal of the work. Photo courtesy of William Herbst.

when Otake expressed desire to perform in the dome of the observatory, she and Professor Kilgard began working together because he was the only one who knew how to operate the telescope at the time. The two spent time rehearsing together and talking about astronomy and the history of the Van Vleck Observatory. During their first visits together, Otake observed Professor Kilgard conduct a training session with the Astronomical Society of Greater Hartford in the observatory’s dome. After looking through the telescope and watching Professor Kilgard operate it, she decided the telescope should move with her in the performance. In effect, she would create a duet of movement between herself and the 20-inch refractor telescope. Kilgard would help operate the telescope.

While this was Kilgard’s first time participating in an event like this at the observatory, it was not his first time being involved in creative projects.

“My father was a musician and I grew up playing in a lot of bad bands. The idea of being involved in performances doesn’t scare me. However, I had no theater or dance experience so the thought of working with one of the best, most famous contemporary dancers in the world terrified me a little bit. I really didn’t want to mess it up.”

During the performance, Otake would make signals to Professor Kilgard, alerting him to when she wanted him to move the telescope. They tried their best to create signals that were subtle in order to ensure that the audience would not be able to predict what would happen next.

Otake and spectators

Otake consuming flowers while spectators look on. Photo courtesy of Wesleyan University’s Center for the Arts. Images by Sandy Aldieri of Perceptions Photography

Kilgard expressed his excitement for the event: “I was so excited to see people’s reactions, especially the people who had never been in that space before. In general I was so excited to see people’s reactions to something so weird happening in a space that was so purposely built for science 100 years ago and now there is something as far from that that you can get taking place in the same space.”

The performance itself is about forty minutes long, and Otake begins the piece by moving at a snail’s pace. “Once she really begins to move,” Kilgard explained, “people lose track of time and they become completely absorbed in what she was doing. All eyes were on her.”

Otake and spectators

Near the end of the performance, Otake tugs on the manual pulley that opens the dome. Spectators look on. Photos courtesy of Wesleyan University’s Center for the Arts. Image by Sandy Aldieri of Perceptions Photography.


To view an edited video of Otake’s performance, click here. To view more photos from the event, click here. To read Professor Kilgard’s take on the performance, click here.

Songs from the night sky: How one experimental composer turned stars into music

Artists from all ages, from Van Gogh and his Starry Night to Disney animators and The Lion King, have drawn inspiration from the night sky. Add to the mix: John Cage, experimental composer. You might remember John Cage for his composition 4’33, one of the quietest revolutions of the music world. Cage was a fellow at Wesleyan University’s Center for Advanced Studies in the 1960-1961 academic year, and it was only a matter of time before he would shatter the world of music again, only this time a little louder and from the state of Connecticut.

Atlas Eclipticalis (in color)

Star chart in color from Anton Becvar’s Atlas Eclipticalis. Image from Astronomical Institute at the Slovak Academy of Sciences.

Cage spent time at Wesleyan teaching and composing commissioned pieces; one such orchestral commission was owed to the Montreal Festival Society. Known for incorporating the element of chance in his compositions, Cage took a walk up to the Van Vleck Observatory one day with an idea for his latest commission: he would overlay musical staves (i.e. musical staffs) over charts of stars and, wherever the stars appeared on the staffs, he would record them as musical notes. When Cage arrived, the student worker in the Astronomy Library, Bill Jefferys, pulled the recently published Atlas Eclipticalis off the shelf. As Jefferys later recalled, “I showed [the charts] to Cage, whose eyes lit up as I think it was a lot more than he expected.” Cage checked the book out and worked on the composition in the Honors College.

Atlas Eclipticalis musical notation

Image capture of pages from Atlas Eclipticalis (above) and Variations 1 (right) in the New York Times article “The Avant-Garde Makes a Noise” (11 Sep 1966: 51).

A year or so later, Jefferys was invited to attend the US premiere of Atlas Eclipticalis at Connecticut College. On the concert, the Astronomy Library student worker said, “[Atlas Eclipticalis] was the music for a dance performance [titled Aeon] by Merce Cunningham…and his troupe. Cunningham was dressed as a chicken, I believe. The whole affair was quite amusing.” Seem a bit strange? Welcome to the world of experimental music! Atlas Eclipticalis was then performed by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and in tributes to the composer. A performance at Wesleyan University took place in 1988 and can be listened to below.

Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis joins the long-running artistic tradition of a fascination with the night sky. As the catalyst for artistic creation, the Van Vleck Observatory is now part of the history of that tradition. This site of education and research in astronomy has also been a place of artistic inspiration and intellectual development that extends beyond the strictly astronomical. What’s more, this tradition will continue in the centennial celebration in the fall of 2015: dancer/choreographer Eiko Otake will occupy the Van Vleck dome as part of her performance “A Body in an Observatory.” And of course, in the spring of 2016, there will be an encore rendition of Atlas Eclipticalis, too.