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Encounters

Dance: thought in motion

Profile of Wayne McGregor — By Sarah Crompton

In collaboration with visual artist Olafur Eliasson and composer Jamie xx, British choreographer Wayne McGregor is now taking over the Palais Garnier stage with his new piece, Tree of Codes. Once again, a realm of unexplored perceptions opens out to the audience. A tirelessly questing spirit and passionate champion of dance that is constantly in motion, McGregor continues to explore ground-breaking choreographic language, mingling visual arts, scientific technology and ever-more inventive creativity.    

All choreographers have a personal style. But it would be hard not to recognise a ballet by the British choreographer Wayne McGregor – those sleek, hyper-extended distortions, the extreme articulation of the body, the unexpected twists and turns of movement. Dancers in his works, whatever the theme, look stunningly beautiful and disorientatingly strange. They are recognisably human and also bodies from another world.

His interests are as wide as his extension of the choreographic vocabulary. He has made purely abstract works, pieces that take on complex scientific concepts, a ballet about the nature of modern warfare and one about the writings of Virginia Woolf. Just look at the range of work he has choreographed for Paris Opera Ballet. L’Anatomie De La Sensation, his first creation for the company in 2011, was inspired by the paintings of Francis Bacon; Genus found its own origins in Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species; Alea Sands was a tribute to the music and the principles of chance used by Pierre Boulez.

"Tree of Codes", Palais Garnier, 2017 © Little Shao / OnP

Tree of Codes which brings together the dancers of the Opera with those of Wayne McGregor Company was prompted by a book by Jonathan Safran Foer that took his favourite work – Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles – and literally carved out a new book, by cutting holes in the paper to highlight individual words and phrases and reveal new meanings.

Not a single McGregor piece – not even the fable Raven Girl, his first narrative ballet - takes you anywhere near the fairy tales, legends and myths or even the pure interest in physical form that inspire so many choreographers. For him, concept is all. “I’m always amazed by people who say they want to make choreography but they don’t have an idea,” he once said. “I find that weird. For me, it’s about motivating yourself to find something interesting that will engross you and make you change the way you think about the world. That’s why we do what we do.”

That remark gives a clue to the impetus behind his entire career. He is a man driven by a desire to explore. He does this both through his rigorous adaptation of dance vocabulary, but also through collaborating with other artists from other spheres, who provide nourishment for his always-active imagination yet who allow him to fulfil his singular vision.

“Collaboration keeps you moving. It stops you being formulaic,” he once said. “I want to feel motivated when I wake up in the morning. Dance is so collaborative anyway. If you’ve got people who are inspired and inspiring it’s bound to infect your work and infect your practice.” Wayne McGregor

The first step, the initial mark on the canvas, though, comes from him. Kevin O’Hare, director of the Royal Ballet where McGregor has been resident choreographer for the past 10 years, noted: “When Wayne puts a ballet on stage, what you see in the end is what he imagined in the beginning. He is always thinking deeply about what he wants to do with a particular piece to make it work.” This is something McGregor himself explains in a different way. “The choreography is not something separate,” he says. “I know what the world will be, what the music will sound like. These function like my script, or like a toolbox for me to play with. So I am partly engineering the choreography with those ideas in my mind – and partly looking for the opportunities that arise when unexpected stuff happens. “   

"Tree of Codes", Palais Garnier, 2017 © Little Shao / OnP

From the beginning, McGregor has been different. Born in 1970, he grew up in Stockport, an industrial city in the North of England not noted for its dance culture, in “an utterly stable, utterly normal home”. His early influences were disco and the movement of John Travolta – “his pure physicality, the rawness of that body, the ease and effortlessness.” He excelled in ballroom and Latin American dance and told the BBC’s Desert Island Discs that his first teacher had a formative influence on him when she let him make up variations of the rumba or another heritage dance and then noted his version. “They were the touchpoints for choreography,” he said.

He also studied classical music, however - he is one of the very few choreographers who can actually read a musical score – and his career started with a first class degree in dance from Leeds University and jobs in community dance. That combination of the theoretical – the degree – and the intensely practical – getting people involved – honed both his originality and his powerful enthusiasm for the communicative power of movement. He pushes an audience into new territory, just as much as he drives himself.

In 1992, he founded his own company Random Dance (which has now grown into Studio Wayne McGregor) and began to make work characterised by his own spiky qualities as a dancer. Shaven-headed, tall and extremely flexible he was in the words of one critic “capable of dazzling switch and swivel.” By 2001, his company was resident at London’s dance house, Sadler’s Wells, and Nemesis, his first work there, attached long, steel proboscises (made by Henson’s Creature Shop) to the dancers’ arms, turning them into subterranean creatures in a dystopian world.

John Ashford former director of The Place once said: “Wayne is the most inquisitive man I know”, and his work is proof of that curiosity. In AtaXia, premiered at Sadler’s Wells in 2002, he unveiled the results of six months research on the workings of the brain, sending his dancers into spasms of apparently uncontrolled, flailing movement. In 2005’s Amu it was the heart that was the organ under examination. Working with a score inspired by the composer John Tavener’s own heart condition, McGregor watched open-heart surgery (he fainted), and studied the poetry of Sufi mystics to produce a piece that tackled both the heart’s emotions and workings.

That interest in science has found other manifestations too. In 2004, he was appointed Research Fellow in the Department of Experimental Psychology at Cambridge University and many of his subsequent works have either overtly investigated cognitive experiments or used new research developments to underpin an ongoing interest in the relationship between movement and the science of the brain.    

"Tree of Codes", Palais Garnier, 2017 © Little Shao / OnP

McGregor’s work for his own company is often his most adventurous, but his career and thinking has been immensely enriched by his collaborations with different companies. His close association with ballet began in 2006 when the Royal Ballet premiered Chroma. It was a sensation. Behind the headlines about “Acid House at the Opera House” and “punk in the Garden” was a real frisson at the thrilling effect of the collision of McGregor’s new ways of thinking and bodies that had been ballet-trained in the most traditional manner.

When he accepted the post of resident choreographer, following in the illustrious footsteps of Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan, it was an appointment that shocked some traditionalists, and criticism of McGregor’s work for the Royal Ballet has never entirely been silenced. Yet Kevin O’Hare is insistent that it has been a boon for the company.

“Some people were shocked that such a role would go to an outsider someone who had not come up through the company itself,” he explained. “But I was very excited by the idea, along with the rest of the company, and felt that it was taking the Royal Ballet in the right direction. It was important to have a contemporary choreographer like him on the inside, working with the dancers and pushing them onwards. And the dancers themselves were ready for that sort of challenge. There was quite a whoop around the house when the notice announcing his appointment went out; it was a surprise but they absolutely welcomed it.”

Since then McGregor has expanded his work as a freelance for a wide range of international dance companies, including POB, La Scala, Nederlands Dans Theater, San Francisco Ballet, Stuttgart Ballet, New York City Ballet and Australian Ballet. He has also been movement director on Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and, more recently, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and The Legend of Tarzan. He once arrived for a day in rehearsal at the Opera House after a morning observing apes at London Zoo.    

"Tree of Codes", Palais Garnier, 2017 © Little Shao / OnP

He works incredibly hard, with commitment and energy. In rehearsal with dancers, he is an inspiring figure, full of crackling energy, swooping around the studio making an assortment of sounds and using a variety of images to explain what he wants and needs. “He has a way of making the dancers part of the creation,” O’Hare explained. “His work isn’t improvised, it’s clearly directed, but he says, “here is the material, now let’s work out how this step can follow that step”. He stands back from it a little and asks the dancers to collaborate with him. Some people find it hard, obviously, but others eat it up and can’t wait to get their brains and their bodies around the work. His choreography engages everything.”

That sense of the possibility of dance, the way it involves both mind and body in a continual exploration of content and form, drives McGregor ever onwards. His career keeps developing and growing. The recent success of 2015’s Woolf Works, a three-act ballet based on Virginia Woolf’s writing which he created without sacrificing any of his exploratory instincts, made him feel that lyric ballet theatres are – finally – ready to embrace new ideas. “It felt like a tipping point,” he said. Placing his dancers alongside those from Paris Opera Ballet was another sign of that sense of two worlds coming together. “It is nice for my company to have a new energy. But it also shows the way that ballet companies like the Royal and POB are starting to work in different ways. I don’t think it is just me who is changing. There is a definite shift.”

McGregor’s interest in pushing the envelope, represented in works like Tree of Codes, is part of his belief in making dance speak the language of today. “We live in complex times. Our art forms should reflect the need to decipher meanings and find new synergies. It’s not for everyone and that’s fine, but it is absolutely what we should be doing.”      

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