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.
Doeshe really wantthe Hoxton crowdto decampenmassefor thehallowedspaces of theRoyalOperaHouse? "I'd like interesting people to come who are curiousaboutadifferent wayof thinking about Covent Garden," he repliescarefully."WhenIthinkabouta night out in London, I don't restrict myself to a specificart form. I don't think,'Oh,I'mpartof adance audience,' or,'I'maballetlover.'Ithinkabout the thingthat mostexcitesme thatnight whetherit's at ShuntVaults[ananarchic performancespace at London Bridge], at theWhitechapel,theTate or some little studiointheEastEnd. People who think like that are theonesIwanttogetin."
Ignitedrawsinspiration from the ROH 2008/09season,duringwhichMcGregorwillbringtogether the RoyalOperaand Royal Ballet(for thefirsttime anyone canremember) in a double production of Dido and Aeneas/AcisandGalatea.Meanwhile,other work in theIgnitepipeline includes a new commission by the artistJulianOpie, famous forhisportraitsof Blur, and a pieceofart,asyetunspecified,from BlastTheory, a groupof interactive gamingspecialists.
Thislatterishardly a surprise, given McGregor's love, and extensive use,of newtechnology. GrowingupinStockport, nearManchester, he was somethingof aschoolboynerd. "I startedplayingwithcomputersat the age of seven andI'vejustneverstopped." Indeed, it's at the interface between art and sciencethatMcGregorhasfound
Unlikely star: McGregor became the Royal Ballet's choreographer-in-residencelast year despite never having had a ballet lessonhisrichestmaterial;2004'sAtaXiawasan unsettling, hyperactive response to a rareneurologicaldisorderthat robs the bodyof itsabilitytoco-ordinate movement.
In Amu, he focusedonthe fundamental,mysticalprocessesof the heartandinNemesishe attachedgiantprostheticarmstohisdancers'limbs.
HIS NEW work for Random, called Entity, features music from Coldplaycollaborator Jon Hopkinsand a list of 16 scientific advisers from around the world.
"My fantasy at the beginning of this piece was to ask a cognitive scientist totell me what was going on in my brain when I performed a complex dancemovement.
But that's way too ambitious. One of the scientists told me that he'd spent hislifetime trying to find out what happened in his brain when he lifted hislittle finger. So what's emerged, instead, is a three-year plan to translate asmuch information as we can get into algorithms, and then build a computerprogram that I can take into a studio with me." The programthe Artificial Intelligence, or Entitywill be "trained" to think like a choreographer, and McGregor will then set ita "choreographic test".
"The thing is, it won't necessarily produce dance," he says, confusingly. "Itmight produce a piece of music, or architecture or some visual art. But it willbe 'thinking' like a choreographer." He smiles at my baffled face. "We'll haveto wait and see what happens, but I'm convinced that this is a more interestingapproach than building, say, dancing robots." Famously, when Warner Bros hiredhim to choreograph Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, McGregor refused to usestage school kids but insisted instead on using children from east London whohad never danced before. It was "social dancing classes"Latin American and ballroomthat hooked him on dance, and he's passionate about hooking others.
"The Billy Elliot syndrome still exists, but Strictly Come Dancing has helpedenormouslyseeing those macho sports stars wearing strange costumes and having a reallygreat time can only be positive. Now what we need is a mix of dance ontelevision; not only Strictly, not only ballet, but modern dance, like Chroma,as well." His own trajectory from the tango to the very top of British dancehas been swift and characteristically unconventional.
McGregor studied choreography at Leeds and then moved to the Jose Limon schoolin New York, before taking a job with the Arts Council and, at the age of 22,establishing his own company. Not long after, he took up a residency at ThePlace, and several years later Random became a fixture at Sadler's Wells. Alongthe way, he's choreographed for Andrew Lloyd Webber and created dance for majorcompanies across Europe and America. He has also directed opera at La Scala.
When I ask him whether he'd like one day to run the Royal Ballet itself, herefuses to give an entirely straight answer but implies that he would verymuch.
"Do I need to have danced Ashton or MacMillan to be able to preserve itsfuture? No, because there are many other brilliant people who'd do that betterthan me [whom you could employ]. I think I absolutely have a responsibility andcare for heritage ballet but I also have strong views about what coulddynamically engage us in the future and how you really get people to becurious, and then comfortable, with going to the Royal Opera House. Because itis so thrilling when you get there." Wayne McGregor to replace Royal Balletdirector Monica Mason, when her contract ends in 2012? Now that would be bold.
Entity is at Sadler's Wells (0844 412 4300; www.sadlerswells.com) 10-12 April.Ignite is at Covent Garden 12-14 September (booking from 1 July: 020 7304 4000;www.roh.org.uk)..…