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A quantum leap in the arts: CASCaDe Launches at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts

Eight people are on stage acting out a scene. They are in mid-action with lights behind them.
CASCaDe cast; Photo by Amy Penne

STEAM is all the rage. Combining the magical forces of science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics has been a rallying cry in both K-12 and higher education for many moons. All too often, the focus, when it comes to funding projects, aligns closer to the science and technology part of that acronym. But not here, people, not here. The University of Illinois has taken STEAM to new heights and the evolution of the Collective for Arts-Science, Creativity and Discovery, etc., aka CASCaDe, renews my faith in humanity’s ability to innovate our way to the next phase in our evolution. I know. That sounds huge. Because it is. 

On a stage with a brick wall background, an Indian woman, a Black woman, and a white man stand in front of a microphone reading from three-ring notebooks.
Smitha Vishveshwara, Latrelle Bright, and Stephen Taylor; Photo by Amy Penne

Brainchild of Smitha Vishveshwara (Physics), Latrelle Bright (Theatre), and Stephen Taylor (Music), CASCaDe is the embodiment of everything the intersection of science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics is supposed to produce. This performance marked the official launch of CASCaDe but the work has been coming together for several years. CASCaDe comprises “university students, faculty, and staff, and groups from diverse walks of life. Our approaches vary and involve community building, research, and education. We seek to steep ourselves in contemplation and wonder, to embrace empathy, and to grow connections with Nature and fellow-explorers.” The evening of theatre, science, dance, and music on Stage 5 in KCPA’s gorgeous lobby was a delight-filled way to celebrate the culmination of another academic year. 

I spoke with Kelly Lin Searsmith, a sponsored research administrator in Physics, who deepened my understanding of the project. Vishveshwara, a professor in condensed matter physics, “is the daughter of two famous Indian physicists (black hole physicist C.V. Vishveshwara and biophysicist Saraswathi Vishveshwara). Smitha is a composer herself and has always been interested in creatively composing stories to make the quantum more accessible to people. They’re like a play of the mind. [In fact, her dissertation from the University of California at Santa Barbara, was called A Three-Act Play of Strongly Correlated Electrons]. Vishveshwara’s work includes stories that help an audience feel what’s going on at the quantum level. We can’t see or feel that. Smitha is very much steeped in a philosophical tradition with a sense of the big picture but who also has a heart for storytelling.” 

Two white men in white shirts with black pants dance in front of a grand piano.
Quantum Entango; Photo by Amy Penne

Together with the theatrical genius that Latrelle Bright brings to the project, the emotional and technical prowess of composer Stephen Taylor, and the choreography of Kato Lindholm and Alex Tecza, Vishveshwara’s vision will forever shape and reshape the STEAM landscape. This kind of work is entirely fresh and emboldens me to continue to overuse the word “dance” to describe nearly everything. CASCaDe is a dance of the quantum reality as it evolves in the creative laboratory that only a class like “Where the Arts Meets Physics,” offered as both a physics and music class, can realize. 

The evening opened with an invitation from Vishveshwara, Bright, and Taylor to reflect on the ways in which the human condition is both seen and unseen, working together with forces in the universe and forces in our own emotional lives. The set of pieces, “Quantum Voyages,” the “Creative Fragments by Students from Where The Arts Meets Physics,” “Quantum Engtango,” and the interactive “Contemplating the Universe” left the audience feeling both joy and awe. Part of the interactive nature of the piece ended with the dancers inviting the audience to join the dance with a few simple but powerful moves. Tables on the side of the space invited audience members to describe their reaction to this unique creative encounter with the performing arts and physics. Audience questions during the talkback reflected a deep desire to connect with each other and with these profound, yet strangely simple, concepts of motion and narrative. 

What Vishveshwara, Bright, and Taylor have brought to life in these enchanting pieces is the very real and tangible desire we all have to create and to realize ourselves in the universe. Condensed matter physics is not something I can fully grasp or imagine and I’m grateful we have brilliant minds working in the field. But I can grasp meaning through story since story, my librarian-husband is always reminding me, is one of the things that most deeply connects us with our humanity.

People dancing on a brightly-lit lobby floor. There are hanging lights and a stage in the background.
CASCaDe; Photo by Amy Penne

I can’t fully describe the pieces and don’t want to as the work is still evolving and will be featured on the newly renovated Colwell Playhouse stage in 2025. The work is an imaginative fusion of story, movement, and music. It is creativity at its best; it’s science at its best. This is the kind of interdisciplinary work sparked by a university setting, but that can only be fully realized in the creative life of the larger community. I hope these illuminating creators take the work into the local schools and invite the K-12 community to join in the dance. 

Arts Editor at Smile Politely

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