For Wayne McGregor, the focus of dance is the body and its medium is movement. The choreographer has built a twenty-five-year career around the careful scrutiny of these concepts, taking residencies at Sadlers Wells and the Royal Ballet in the process. Often employing technological advances to mediate and disrupt bodily kinetics – such as the cyber-appendages of 2001’s ‘Nemesis’ or the cognitive science of 2004’s ‘AtaXia’ – McGregor’s latest project ‘Autobiography’ sees this scrutiny turned inwards.
Here McGregor interrogates the possibilities of performing a life. He takes his premise literally and conceptually, having had his genome sequenced and his genetic code then fed into an AI computer program which creates a series of dance movements responding to these strands of his makeup. What the audience sees onstage, then, is a physical manifestation of McGregor’s DNA split into over a dozen different sequences, each of which alters subtly for each performance. The piece is constantly changing as the body is.
The concept is typically high-brow and involved, yet what the audience witnesses is an 80-minute performance of tenderness, passion, and energy, all underpinned by Chicago-based footwork producer Jlin’s score.
The footwork genre, with its scattering polyrhythms and layers-upon-layers of electronic percussion, has its own eponymous dance characterised by sturdy torsos and lightning-fast feet, tilting the dancers to the edges of their balance just as the music constantly feels on the precipice of breaking apart. The academic Dhanveer Brar writes of how “footwork is the outcome of pressure created by the movement of dancers. What is heard in footwork is the force of dancers’ movements within the circle” and while in ‘Autobiography’ the dance is disrupted, the pressure of movement on music remains.
As the curtain rose on the sold-out performance at Trinity Laban Conservatoire, where McGregor is a Professor of Choreography, it revealed a bare stage infested with dry ice and lit by a geometric overhanging grid. There stood Jacob O’Connell, one of ten dancers, performing a series of fluid, writhing movements to Jlin’s eerie bass vibrations and clanking percussion. Soon the music ascended to ‘8 nurture’ and a machine-gun fire of snares, strobe lighting and snatches of sampled vocals and screams. A fast-moving duet between dancers Rebecca Bassett-Graham and Daniela Neugebauer, balletic arcs were cut together with a ritualistic repetition, as if the pair were entranced by each other.
The strengths of ‘Autobiography’ lay in these moments of in tenderness, juxtaposed against the often confrontational music. In ‘3 (dis)equilibrium’, for instance, the speeding bass and pitched euro-trance synths narrated ensemble movements that came briefly together in unison and then shattered apart. Under the red lighting of ‘19 ageing’, Louis McMiller tumbled along the floor, as if we were now seeing inside the bloody chaos of McGregor’s body.
Conversely, the baroque strings of ‘7 traces’ and the relational seated postures of ‘Three Scenes’ jarred, relying on moments of silence as respite against the onslaught of Jlin’s music and McGregor’s otherwise frantic choreography.
At its root, ‘Autobiography’ presents life through the sheer force of movement. Even when dancers were motionless, their diaphragms were visibly pumping and their increasingly sweat-glistened bodies reflecting Lucy Carter and Ben Cullen Williams’ ingenious lighting. The patchwork nature of the piece mirrors the fragmented nature of a life and its dissonance against the music highlights the gap between perception and experience.
Moments of clarity still cut through the cacophony and in the closing number, ‘23 choosing’, each dancer takes it in turns to walk to the front of the stage and stare out at the audience, looking back rather than merely being viewed. Finally, as the curtain closes, Rebecca Bassett-Graham dances alone, remembering the initial sequence while continuing in McGregor’s moving life/force.
Words: Ammar Kalia
Featured Images: Richard Davies