by Panos Charitos. Published: 28 May 2015

A movie set amongst the machines of CERN, the world’s largest particle physics facility, considers how both art and science strive to understand the universe, and what it is to be human. Symmetry, a “dance and opera film,” was shown last March at CERN's Cineglobe festival, following a scientist who transforms into a dancer. The physicist played by dancer and choreographer Lukas Timulak is interrupted from his routine by the voice of soprano Claron McFadden, which eventually transports him to an interior world, an expression of how our drive for rational knowledge of the universe is rooted in a more emotional desire inside ourselves.


Symmetry combines opera, choreography, digital art and physics and seeks to highlight the mission of the Large Hadron Collider in a way we haven't seen before. The heart of Symmetry's story relates to time, seeking to link the past and "primal arts" such as music and dance, with a scientific future. "Maybe time is just a memory," says director Ruben van Leer. "And stories set the mental clock," he says. “Dance, like music, can speak a universal language,” Symmetry director Ruben van Leer says: “I discovered in the making of this project that the science at CERN is basically looking for the same answers, but in a completely different way. The methodologies of understanding humanism and the universe around us are expressed in a scientific language. Modern physics is an abstract language not readable to many, but still we humans made this language, as an extension of our intellect.”

The dancers reharsing for shooting in ALICE - Photo by Julian CALO

The filming at CERN was done with the support of the Arts@CERN programme. “I think this is exactly what art is about, it’s putting us in contact with reality, with ourselves, with imagination, and I think it only adds to the significance of the discoveries that we make,” Robbert Dijkgraaf, a theoretical physicist and director at IAS Princeton, says in the Symmetry Unravelled short documentary on the filming process done by Juliette Stevens.

The operatic and choral music by Joep Franssensand and Henry Vega gives Symmetry its grand weight. The film takes places in different settings including the LHC tunnel, CERN's Control Centre and ALICE. These places that we have constructed to reach into the limits of understanding ground the narrative for the film. Shooting in ALICE lasted for a whole day and was made possible thanks to Despina Hatzifotiadou and Panos Charitos who supervised the crew and ensured that everything ran smoothly during the filming. Arturo Tauro, Klaus Barth and Andre Augustinus cleared safety issues and provided all the means needed for filming in the ALICE cavern (including special lighting, access to special areas close to the detector etc.). Following the efforts and close collaboration between scientists and artists the production was finished on time leading to an interesting and much inspiring film along with a short documentary on the production of "Symmetry". 

"I didn't want to make a documentary to explain or understand modern physics in general, but rather interpret the complex material this institution is presenting," says van Leer. "And this is also what for me an opera film could do; give space for the audience to make up their own story, with their own imagination and make a journey like [the main character] within themselves: a tiny, personal, world changing quantum-story."

Details on upcoming events and screenings for Symmetry are on the filmmakers’ website.