Physical Education: Wayne McGregor, Britain's Hottest Choreographer, Tells Alice O'Keeffe That Dance Holds the Answer to Our National Body-Image Crisis
O'Keeffe, Alice, New Statesman (1996)
Wayne McGregor leans his gangly body against the mirrors in the airy Jerwood Space studios and observes as his dancers perform a complex sequence of movements. First their heads bob down like so many birds, then their arms shoot rapidly up and down, measuring out the space between collarbone and shoulder, elbow and wrist. Their backs arch and flex and their shoulders shudder. It is like watching a beautifully synchronised set of malfunctioning robots.
The group moves briskly through sequence after sequence. As McGregor calls out numbers, the dancers launch into long set pieces, jagged solos and smooth, sliding duets. McGregor contributes the odd instruction: "This needs to be like underwater dancing", "Make it fatter!" and, once, "Imagine you are a boa constrictor that has just eaten something." The subsequent change is almost imperceptible, but somehow that boa constrictor has made it into the movement.
To someone like me, whose co-ordination hit a ceiling in level one aerobics, the dancers' physical memory and ability to respond to instruction with pinpoint accuracy seem incredible. "They are like computers," says McGregor afterwards. "We work on a set of sequences together. Weeks later, we'll go back over them and they'll still be there in the hard drive." It is a characteristic McGregor analogy: throughout his career he has been preoccupied with the connections between dance, technology and the science of the body. For his works AtaXia and Amu, he collaborated with neuroscientists and heart specialists respectively. The former was inspired by a disorder affecting bodily co-ordination and the latter looked at how emotions take place in the body.
For his latest show, Entity, which premieres at Sadler's Wells this month, McGregor has once again been distracting scientists from their test tubes. This time he has been working with a group of "cognitive scientists" on a project that sounds, when he first tells me about it, entirely incomprehensible. "We have been working on identifying kinaesthetic intelligence ... unpicking it a bit and using the information to build artificially intelligent choreographic agents." I wonder, rather hopefully, whether that means dancing robots. "No. Not robots. The agents solve problems but they don't dance the solution. They might generate architecture or a series of numbers."
Right. I look baffled enough for him to take pity on me, and he starts to explain again, in the manner of a teacher with a slightly simple pupil. "What interests me is how the way the brain works makes an impact on choreography. What processes does it involve, in terms of geometrical organisation, mathematics or timing?" This only really starts to make sense when I see some of the piece in rehearsal, with its repeated motifs of measuring the body, and of organising and controlling the space around it. But it is important to recognise that, for all his scientific terminology and laboratory-based research, when McGregor gets into the studio the choreography is still an instinctive, artistic process. "I always say that the research is not directly related to the piece. The research is one thing, and the piece when it is created is something independent."
McGregor is the bright hope of British dance at a time when most of the biggest talents working here come from abroad. Inspired as a child by John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, he trained first at Bretton Hall in Leeds, and then in New York. His work has an instantly identifiable style, all jerking limbs and awkward stretches, drawing on what he describes as a "dystopian view of the body ... which reflects the kind of fractured, dysfunctional world in which we live". His shows with his own company, Random Dance (recently rechristened, with quirky typography and a dash of ego, Wayne McGregor | Random Dance), have consistently received rave reviews, and in 2006 the classical dance Establishment was rocked when he was appointed choreographer-in-residence at the Royal Ballet. …