Byline: ALISON ROBERTS
LAST week, at the launch of the new Royal Opera House season, chiefexecutive Tony Hall braved the wrath of Covent Garden purists by reportedlyannouncing that he wanted "to get that buzzy cool crowd to come in".
Opera traditionalists immediately scoffed that Hall was having a mid-lifecrisisbut there's no doubting his sincerity. For years, it's a question that hasvexed the arts world Great and Good. With an average audience age estimated at50-plus, the ROH needs desperately to encourage a younger crowd.
Which is why London's least conventional choreographer, Wayne McGregor, is atthe heart of their new plans.
McGregor himself admits that Swan Lake was never really his cup of tea.
"The ballet isn't something I'd normally have paid money to watch or beenparticularly attracted to. Before, I might have preferred to go to a movie oran exhibition instead," he says, startlingly.
"Yes, the general impression, still, is that the ROH is a place for yourparents.
When you think of an opera house crowd, you think of black tie, don't you? Ofcourse, it's fine to go in jeans but that's not the perception." This is a manwho cites John Travolta as his biggest childhood influence, and loves the BBC'sStrictly Come Dancing.
He's equally at home on the set of a Harry Potter movie as he is on-stage atSadler's Wells. Shaven-headed and elasticlimbed, he has an eye for theunorthodox and eclectic, making dances to club music, to the White Stripes and,in 2006's Amu, to a classical score by John Tavener.
His latest work for his own company, Random Dance, which premieres at Sadler'sWells next week, is inspired by months of work with cognitive scientists atOxford, Cambridge and UCL and represents the first instalment in a longtermproject to create an "artificially intelligent choreographic brain" usingcomplex computer programming.
For all his iconoclasm, for the past year McGregor has also been working at thevery heart of British establishment ballet, as the Royal Ballet's residentchoreographer.
His appointment, inspired by the sell-out success of 2006's Chroma, agroundbreaking piece created for Covent Garden's main stage, was widely seen asa radical move. McGregor, after all, has never taken a ballet lesson in hislife and, before accepting the post, had no detailed, first-hand knowledge ofthe RB's traditional repertoire of Sir Kenneth MacMillan and Frederick Ashton.
At 37, he's too old to be called an enfant terriblebut that's his reputation. So how has he found conservative Floral Street?"Working at the opera house has been an absolute revelation to me," he replies."It'sbeenincredibly stimulating.
I've had a real physical, visceral thrillfrom seeingallthe repertoire. Thefactis I've been transported every time I've seen something here. I don't thinkthe [ ROHimage] problemhasanythingtodo withthe nature of the work. Once youseeit, you see just how relevant it can be.
That perception of fustinessit's probably more to do withthe audiencethan thework." And the ROHisusingitsnew, cuttingedgeassetinpioneeringways,entrustingMcGregor with the artistic directorship of Ignite,athree-daymulti-artsfestival, designedspecificallytoattract new audiencestoCoventGardenthisautumn.If McGregor's appointmentaschoreographer in residence wasregardedasbrave, handingover the whole buildingtohim for threedaysmightbeconsideredpositively fearless. One of thefirsteventshe hasscheduled, for example, is a club nightaprospectguaranteed,surely, to have thetraditionalistschokingontheir daintyintervalsarnies.
"But the traditionalists won't come, will they?" says McGregor, grinning.
"I don't know whetherthey'lllikethe idea or not,tobehonest.Iwouldn'tconcernmyself withitif they didn't."The nightwillfeatureaslateof wellknownDJsandwilltake placeineithertheLinbury Theatre or the glass-roofed PaulHamlynHall.
McGregor may even decide to marketit intried-and-testedclubbing fashionwithflyposterswrappedaround lampposts. …