Northern Illinois University

NIU Office of Public Affairs

Carla Montgomery
Carla Montgomery

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News Release

Contact: Tom Parisi, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-3635

January 17, 2006

NIU professor's textbook inspires
New York City stage production

DeKalb, Ill. — When Professor Carla Montgomery penned a geology textbook in 1987, she hoped it would get students excited about the wonders of the physical world around them. But never in her wildest dreams did she expect the letter of appreciation that arrived in the mail shortly before the holiday break.

“I am writing to invite you to a performance in New York City that was inspired and informed by your book ‘Physical Geology,' ” the letter began.

“The performance integrates acrobatics, dance and theater and was inspired by the geologic and evolutionary history of the earth. Your descriptions of earth's movements and systems of change functioned as templates through which we created choreographic structures….It would be my great honor if you could attend.”

The letter was signed by Sarah East Johnson, founder and artistic director of LAVA, an award-winning Brooklyn-based troupe. Inspired by Montgomery 's textbook, the company's latest production, titled “(w)HOLE,” an acronym for the (Whole) History Of Life on Earth, opened Jan. 5 for a seven-week off-Broadway run.

“When you write a science book, you don't expect to inspire an artistic production,” Montgomery said. “But you never know how far the influence of a book extends.”

A 28-year veteran of NIU, Montgomery serves as acting associate dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and is teaching two courses this semester in the Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences. She has authored several college-level textbooks in geology.

“Certainly the earth does a lot of exciting things; just think about the forces of nature such as volcanoes and earthquakes. But to turn that into gymnastics and acrobatics is clearly an imaginative leap,” Montgomery said. “I'm thrilled.”

A troupe of six women, LAVA has successfully fused geology and dance in past productions that have received glowing reviews from the likes of Newsweek, the Village Voice and the New York Times. Prior to forming the company, Johnson had trained in ballet and modern dance and had performed with a circus company. Not surprisingly, she also has a keen interest in geology.

“I had taken a geology course at Brooklyn College eight or 10 years ago and ‘Physical Geology' was the text,” Johnson explained in a phone interview. “To find out that the planet was so full of movement was really inspiring to me. The information was communicated in a very dynamic way.”

With her latest production, Johnson set out to treat Montgomery's textbook as if it were a play. Geologic systems and processes—such as volcano formation, magnetic polarity reversal and rock cycles—are choreographed to dance, acrobatics, trapeze acts, music and background video images captured by Katia and Maurice Krafft, a husband-wife team of volcanologists famous for filming volcanic eruptions. (They were killed in a 1991 eruption in southwestern Japan.)

Johnson said the performance doesn't follow a narrative and isn't meant to be instructional. Rather, her intent was to link science with the emotional attachment we have to our planet. Audience members “share an experience that is informed by all of the amazing scientific research we have and the human connection to the planet we live on,” she said.

Montgomery said her course commitments will prevent her from traveling to New York this semester, but she might be able to catch a future performance. Johnson said there's a chance that the LAVA company will tour with the production later this year.