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A Comedy of Change Rambert Dance Company Ballet in collaboration with Professor Nicky Clayton

Professor Nicky ClaytonWhat do you get when you cross a Professor of Comparative Cognition, the behaviour of birds and a dance company?

Professor Nicky Clayton, (in action, left) of the Department of Experimental Psychology, has applied science to art by taking her knowledge about the way birds' brains work to the dance floor. She's always been fascinated by the showy displays of clever birds and their extravagant dances have inspired her to think in new ways. A serendipitous series of events led to Clayton meeting the Artistic Director of Rambert Dance Company, Mark Baldwin. She is now collaborating with him on a new Darwinian-inspired ballet called 'A Comedy of Change' to mark the bicentenary of Darwin's birth. This work has also resulted in the film 'Bird Tango' available for viewing on the University of Cambridge's website link.

Clayton's work in the lab investigates how birds and humans develop cognitive and social abilities, and one of her projects involves members of the crow family (corvids) that includes the rooks, jays and ravens. Such is her respect for the birds she studies she calls them as "feathered apes".


"I suppose you could say that my Cambridge life is split into two parts. As Professor of Comparative Cognition in the Department of Experimental Psychology, I run a fairly large research group investigating the development and evolution of intelligence, particularly in birds. But when I’m not in the lab, I’m in the studio, practising or performing salsa and Argentine tango, as well as taking weekly jazz classes and a bit of ballet. And this term, as a result of collaboration with the Rambert Dance Company, the two sides of my life have come together.

For the last few years, my team have been pioneering new procedures for the experimental study of episodic memory and future-planning in non-linguistic animals and pre-verbal children. This work has been important for our understanding of animal cognition because it challenges the common-held assumption that only humans reminisce about the past and plan for the future. But it also has important implications for human memory and cognition, and how and when these abilities develop in young children. 

Together with my husband, Nathan Emery, I have been developing a theory that intelligence evolved independently in apes and in corvids (members of the crow family, which includes jays, rooks and ravens). Our current research examines how these birds perform similar cognitive operations to apes – despite their much smaller brains and strikingly different neuroarchitecture. I love the creativity and curiosity involved in studying cognition, particularly in birds whose minds and brains may be so different from our own, coupled with the challenge of finding ways to tap into their intelligence in the absence of language.

My fascination with birds developed at an early age: ever since childhood I have been intrigued by how their minds work and why they engage in such enchanting and elaborate displays. But this term, my admiration for the birds has led me into a very different direction.

In addition to my University and College responsibilities I am working with the Rambert Dance Company on a ballet to mark the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth and 150 years since the publication of “The Origin of the Species”. It is a collaborative project that combines my interests in birds, evolution and cognition with a passion for and appreciation of dance. Working with Mark Baldwin, the artistic director of the Rambert (who happens to share my passion for birds and dance, not to mention shoes and sports cars), has been tremendously rewarding. It is a huge honour and pleasure to be part of his exciting project.

“Darwin and dance?” I hear you say. But there is a connection: and it all comes back to the birds, with their vivid colours and speedy, flashy movements. Steve Pinker referred to the songbirds as “Charlie Parker with feathers” but the blue manakin of Argentina (Chiroxiphia caudata) goes one better, with performances to rival Fred Astaire and Rudolf Nureyev! The male blue manakins are reported to spend about 90% of their time dancing, for nine months each year, and take a good eight years learning from the principal to perfect their dancing techniques. As only top-notch dancers get to mate, they illustrate Darwinian principles of “survival of the fittest” perfectly (although ironically this was not a term coined by Darwin himself but by the psychologist and philosopher Herbert Spencer). Often this trait is not directly beneficial to survival but driven simply by the female’s whim, for either the simple sexiness of her beau and/or his good quality genes, a special form of natural selection that Darwin called ‘sexual selection’.

At any rate, for me, this is an opportunity of a lifetime: for who would have thought I would have the chance to combine my scientific interests in evolution and cognition with my love of dance. And watching the birds triggers my passion for both.  I find many similarities between science and dance: there’s an elegance about the two, which comes from dedication, discipline, determination, and perseverance.

Her passion goes further than the mixing of science and art: "I have a dream to inspire other women in science. Science professors are sometimes stereotyped as white-haired men in white coats, and science is seen as a lonely and almost anti-social pursuit. But it's an over generalisation – I am blonde with stilletos and I follow fashion!" She says. "Making this Cambridge Ideas film has given me the opportunity to show it is possible to have an exciting profession and pursue other passions like dance. I am able to integrate two very different parts of my life and I am loving every bit of it....thanks to the birds".

All the while I am thinking of birds and dance and science, however, Cambridge retains its hold on my time. As Graduate Tutor at Clare College I am busy supporting and nurturing the graduate students to negotiate the rocky roads of research and to develop their academic research skills and scholarship in an environment in which they can flourish and genuinely call ‘home’ during their time at Cambridge. And then, of course, there is the next set of lectures to prepare – as the curtain goes up at Saddlers Wells, on the Downing Site, the show must go on!"

A Comedy of Change will be performed at Sadler’s Wells on November 3-7, 2009. For booking information please click here.

Posted on 26/08/2009

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