The Mechanics of Life: Powerful film combines engineering and ballet to break down barriers

Pioneering University of Leeds research that challenges stereotypes and perceptions of engineering had its world premiere in the heart of Leeds.

“The Mechanics of Life”, which debuted on the big screen at the Everyman Theatre in Trinity Leeds, was the culmination of a ten-month collaboration between the University of Leeds, Northern Ballet, and Batley Girls’ High School, funded by the Royal Academy of Engineering.

The research project, led by Dr Briony Thomas of the School of Mechanical Engineering, brought together the University’s engineers with the creative minds at Northern Ballet to help change perceptions of engineering by introducing new and diverse audiences to the mechanics of movement through dance – and create lasting relationships between art and science.

A number of school girls looking at a display of engineering items, with one girl smiling directly at the camera.

Students of Batley Girls' High School, who helped inspire the final film, were the first people to see the movie on the big screen.

The films were co-created by Batley Girls’ High School students based on their engineering learning. Workshops connected anatomy, physics of motion, and limits of the body, and these were translated into mechanical and organic movement by Northern Ballet’s expert choreographers. The final film was performed in the University’s landmark Sir William Henry Bragg Building, alongside its cutting-edge robotics.

Mechanics of Life from Northern Ballet on Vimeo.

Fittingly, the first people to see The Mechanics of Life at the cinema were the girls themselves, who were first treated to a behind-the-scenes video that documented their work with the ballet dancers and machinery – including a robot dog – before watching the final film.

More than 100 special guests of the University and Northern Ballet were later invited to see the final film, followed by a panel discussion about the project’s process and inspiration, which proved to be a positively emotional experience for everyone involved.

Five people sat on a stage having a discussion in front of a large projection of the Mechanics of Life logo

A panel discussion featured (L-R) host Selina McGonagle, Natalie Casson (Batley Girls’ High School), Dr Briony Thomas and Professor Sophie Williams (University of Leeds), and Kenneth Tindall (Choreographer in Residence, Northern Ballet).

Dr Briony Thomas said: “The premiere was a unique celebration of an extraordinary collaboration. The afternoon’s premiere, with panel discussion and reception, enabled us to come together as a team to share our learning and experiences with a wider audience.

“Opening spaces that can be perceived as elitist – and breaking down barriers between disciplines, roles, and traditional hierarchies – is not easy. It has taken the passion and commitment of an amazing team and the support of many colleagues to make this happen.

“The event sparked some exciting conversations, and – dare I say it – there are even bigger plans are in the making!”

An audience watching a film on a cinema screen

Over 100 special guests watched The Mechanics of Life at the Everyman Cinema in Trinity Leeds.

The Mechanics of Life was one of 16 programmes selected for the 2023 Ingenious Awards, a scheme launched by the Royal Academy of Engineering in 2007 and funded by the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT).

The Royal Academy of Engineering’s Ingenious programme started in 2007 and is funded by the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology to support public engagement projects with grants of up to £30,000. The programme intends raise awareness of the diversity, nature and impact of engineering among people of all ages and backgrounds as well as inspiring creative public engagement with engineering projects.

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