Mutants and MacrophagesIt was 5:30 on a Monday night, and 10 graduate students and postdocs in bioengineering were crawling around on the basement floor of Stanley Hall. The activity had nothing to do with cellular behavior or biomedical instruments, two priorities of their lab. Instead, they were developing a dance theater piece for the annual art show held by Professor Dan Fletcher’s lab. Mutants and Macrophages: The Musical was as much an exercise in fun and creativity as it was an opportunity to escape, for a few hours each week, the demands of high-pressure research.

Co-created with Amy Cranch, a Cal staff member who has performing arts experience, the piece began as a movement exploration of how white blood cells engulf cancer cells, then quickly morphed into a musical parody of the Good Cells versus the Bad Cells. As the Good Cells are tidying up bacteria and other damaged materials, the Bad Cells transform into zombies and perform a snippet of Thriller. A fight ensues between the leaders of each cell cluster — think the Sharks and the Jets in West Side Story — and the Good Cells prevail, going back to their duty of keeping tissues clean. Said one student, “Participating in this dance provided an outlet that I don’t normally give myself, and enabled me to step back and creatively translate complex concepts into movement.”

One participant on exchange from Germany said she looked forward to stepping outside of her comfort zone and doing something totally different from what she’s used to. “Over time my attitude toward the mystery dance session changed from skepticism to an enjoyable, really good musical art piece.”

Cast: Carmen Chan, Amy Cranch, Tiama Hamkins-Indik, Paulina Kettel, Amanda Meriwether, Marija Podolski, Maria Diaz de Leon Derby, Eva Schmid, Jordi Silvestre-Ryan, and Emily Suter.