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Autobiography, Company Wayne McGregor. Photo: Andrej Uspenski

Raving while staying still

28 July 2018 Suzanne Frost

One of the first things you notice and possibly one of the strongest points of the whole brand “McGregor” is the completely different crowd the decorated contemporary choreography star manages to attract for dance: for “Autobiography”, Sadler’s Wells is filled with techies and hipsters, geeks and the fashion forward – a young crowd, that is attracted in equal measure by the latest discoveries in electronic music and avant-garde design as they may be by dance. They follow McGregor, from performances around obscure art installations in small galleries to the Royal Opera House, for an experience of performing arts that feels so incredibly now, you can have your finger right on the zeitgeist and hear the beat of life ticking.

Wayne McGregor Random Dance (C) Nick Mead 

Described by the Guardian as “the brainbox of British dance” McGregor is as much a scientist as a dance maker. His studio in East London is a research facility where his Company Wayne McGregor (formerly Random Dance) enquires the body and movement as a way of thinking, archiving and remembering. This all sounds abstract – and it is – but the actual experience as an audience member is altogether different. It is watching outrageously skilled superhuman dancers do unbelievable things with their state of the art bodies to electrifying music with an energy that crosses right into the auditorium. It feels a bit like raving while staying completely still in your seat.
 
Autobiography, Company Wayne McGregor. Photo: Andrej Uspenski

Autobiography is a word to describe a life story written by the subject itself; it is inward looking, potentially narcissistic and, in the age of social media, a form of documenting as well as shaping and editing our own existence. Not for McGregor. In his usual mad scientist approach, he dissects the word itself into auto – the self, bio – life and graphy – writing. For the self, McGregor worked with his dancers to create movement sequences from memorabilia that were of significance in his life, from old school photos to a line from a poem, a favourite movie etc. From this he created a ‘library of movement', 23 dance sequences or volumes of life.

And here comes the science: in a worldwide first project to explore dance and genetics, McGregor had his genome sequenced and developed an algorithm with coder and visual artist Nick Rothwell. Every evening the algorithm will select the order of the 23 life volumes and reshuffle them to ‘write’ a brand new performance, never seen before, never to be repeated again.  This means there is no narrative arc to the piece and no control over the composition or dramaturgy. Luckily, on this night the algorithm shuffles in a way that the moods of the various sequences change frequently. Technically, to fully appreciate this piece of work, you’d have to view many different repetitions.
 
Autobiography, Company Wayne McGregor. Photo: Andrej Uspenski

Exactly how the dancers are able to basically give an unrehearsed performance, how they get their information and when is not entirely clear. Apparently even the pairings and solos are decided afresh every evening, which part will be performed by which dancer and when. This is a dizzying thought and only demands even more respect for his company of superhumans, who dance at a level that must be almost unparalleled. There is a fluidity to their hypermobile bodies that seems liquid, an exactitude and precision, a quality of movement that feels machinal, paired with an inner drive, a kind of aggression coming from within – they are just so ‘on’.
 
Autobiography, Company Wayne McGregor. Photo: Richard Davies

The staging is stripped down, almost bare apart from Ben Cullen Williams’ light installations that wouldn’t be out of place in a hip art gallery. The miraculous bodies are dressed in relaxed minimalist clothing by designer Aitor Throup (of G-Star RAW), surprisingly multifunctional pieces with a capsule approach, where shirts double as skirts tied on the waist. It looks relaxed and confident, something modern day dancers would wear in the studio for rehearsals. The pieces are also completely genderless, just as McGregors movement vocabulary is gender fluid. Nevertheless, the men are shining just that bit more in this piece, especially Louis McMiller who fills his shapes with a very individual sense of sass and Travis Clausen-Knight who shows a textbook quality in all his virtuoso steps and has a freedom of movement that can only come from pure confident skill and talent.
 
The biggest star of the evening though is electronic musician Jlin, who is just off stage live-mixing her very unique brand of hyper energy, rhythmic and aggressive sound collages. With its stripped down, rehearsal style atmosphere, blasting soundtrack and sequenced set up that frequently stops and restarts, Autobiography gives more than a nod to In the middle somewhat elevated, the 1987 William Forsyth’s masterpiece that changed the face of ballet forever. With his strong emphasis on technical virtuosity, hyperextensions and gymnastic elements, plus literally zero facial expressions, McGregor has much of a Forsyth for the 21 century.
 
Autobiography by Company Wayne McGregor is at Sadler’s Wells 26 – 28 July. 
 
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