It was a warm summer night in the sleepy Dutch town of Leiden. Along with a handful grad students and faculty members from Leiden University, I was standing in the courtyard of my professor's beautifully restored 16th century townhouse. We had just finished an amazing dinner (he was as good a cook as he was a carpenter and a theoretical physicist) and the conversation was turning to stories of the great ones.
This often happens when scientists get in a certain kind of reflective mood.
The gathered professors were telling stories of their encounters with luminaries like Richard Feynman, John Wheeler, Chandrasekhar or Leiden's own Jan Oort. The profs wistfully recalled being schooled at the feet of great masters, now past. Then my own professor stopped and turned to the students, who were eating the scene up.
"You're next." he said, pointing his beer at us. "Soon it's your turn and your responsibility. You are going to be the ones who have to do something new. Don't screw it up!"
That wonderful evening in Leiden came back to me on Saturday when I attended an inspiring performance by FuturPointe Dance. FuturPointe is a relatively new troupe who mix styles ranging from modern to Caribbean to Latin to ballet. It was stunning and beautiful and funky — a riot of color, rhythm, movement and mixed media.
In the midst of it all I was struck by the balance of tradition and innovation. The troupe's leaders, Guy Thorne and Heather Roffe, were striking. This was Rochester New York after all and in Rochester new dance troupes stand in the long shadow of Garth Fagan.
Garth Fagan is one of the most successful choreographers in America. If you have seen the stage production of The Lion King, you have seen Fagan's dance. His troupe has been based in Rochester for decades and each season we are lucky to see his pieces before the rest of the world gets its chance.
Many of FuturPointe's dancers have been in Fagan's school or in his troupe (as students or as teachers). FuturPointe knew they would be rising in the shadow of Fagan's influence but they have made that a strength rather than a weakness.
While echoes of Fagan's style could be seen in the fluid athleticism of FuturPointe's choreography, it was, ultimately, their style and theirs alone. It was right at the moment when I saw that brilliant explosion of creativity that I also saw the connection with science and culture as a whole.
Creativity is, after all, the essence of science and art. Each generation starts as students, gets their training from their elders and then has the baton passed to them. The command of the elders is simple:
"Do something new dammit! Go someplace we didn't see."
In science, art and culture as a whole, the complete abandonment of tradition and technique rarely produces anything substantial. Only when we build on what we have learned, only when we digest and metabolize its lessons, are we ready to strike out on our own and build a new perspective.
That new perspective must be won or we sink back into the worst kind of conservativism, an insular, backward-looking imitation.
FuturPointe's performance reminded me that respectfully moving past our past is always the living generation's responsibility. It's a debt we owe to both those who came before us and those will inherit what we create. We should expect nothing less from ourselves in all domains of human activity.