wayne mcgregor is contemporary dance’s most revered renegade

A ballet with a score by Jamie XX? That's choreographer Wayne Mcgregor for you.

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Jan 9 2018, 1:31am

Wayne McGregor is a choreographer famous for pushing boundaries, both inside theatre walls (at his eponymous studio, Company Wayne McGregor, and at The Royal Ballet, where he is a resident choreographer) and outside of them -- a friend to Radiohead, Wayne is often called on to choreograph the band's celebrated music videos. Recently, the 47-year-old has taken to blending dance with artificial intelligence and genetic sequencing: one of his latest works uses drones instead of dancers.

Tree of Codes, his latest work, is a brilliant example of the interdisciplinary approach to dance which has defined Wanye's career. The ballet's original score was composed by Jamie XX, and the set designed by sculptor Olafur Eliasson. Dancers from his company and the Paris Opera Ballet oscillate across a stage fractured by colossal, kaleidoscopic mirrors, as Jamie's hallmark steel drums constellate above a thundering bassline. Almost miraculously, given the scale of the spectacle, the ballet has as much substance as it does style. Tree of Codes is based on a sculptural artifact-cum-novella by Jonathan Safran Foer, who ‘wrote’ Tree of Codes by taking a scalpel to a collection of short stories by Bruno Schulz, literally carving words and sentences out of the pages to reveal a whole new story within the fragments of the original. We sat down with the McGregor ahead of the piece's Sydney premiere to discuss creativity, the evolution of dance, what choreography really is, and why it’s okay not to understand art.

I'm intrigued by your creative process. I read something that Foer said, “There are two kinds of sculptures. There’s the kind that subtracts: Michelangelo starts with a block of marble and chips away. And then there is the kind that adds, building with clay, piling it on.” I wonder if that resonates with you?
What’s striking about Tree of Codes [the novel] is the negative space, the absences are very redolent with meaning, and our job is to find out what is held in there. When you start a project, you just don’t know how it’s going to end up, all you can do is start with the question, rather than having a fixed point or an idea of the thing you want to make. At the beginning, part of the choreographic process is to make as much as you can, to explore, and then, you can start to take away and cut back, to try and reveal something. There are no rules in dance… for me, the whole thing is an experiment. I like to be in a state of not knowing.

You refer to choreography as “a kind of physical thinking,” is that because it cuts through a reliance on language?
The power of dance is that although it has no words, it makes you feel a certain way. Our bodies are constantly moving, sensing, chemically changing, but we always seem to go back to that cognitive state, the verbal linguistic state, which is weird, because 80% of communication is through the body. So another way of thinking about choreography is this idea of eliciting body states. Within the theatre, we can try and activate all the senses, and hopefully, make the body feel different things -- a sensation in the back of the neck, or the physicality of rhythm inside the gut, or inside the ribcage. It’s a transaction of energy, more than anything.

When it comes to contemporary dance, it’s hard to drop the instinct to seek out a linear narrative, particularly for people who might not have a background in dance. When we don’t understand, or we can’t mediate through language, we can feel like some of the value is lost…
Absolutely. With a lot of the visual artists that I love and admire, I’ll often be looking at something and not comprehending, but it’s intriguing enough for me to ask more questions of it. But that depends on personality, because some people just get shut off by that. Part of the journey is to understand that we all have biases, we all have frameworks. But meaning isn't necessarily something fixed, it doesn't have to be something you can totally grasp.

I saw Tree of Codes last year, and as the curtain opens, the stage is completely dark. All you can see are these LED lights whirling around, attached to invisible dancers. There was space for more primal, visceral responses and that served as a beautiful reminder, that dance is about so much more than the physical body, or linearity, and that really stayed with me.
You know, I’m really happy you say that, because it’s interesting, some of the critical responses, to my work in general, is always ‘where is the story?’, and one would think that by now, when you have so many other artists working beyond story, that we wouldn’t be looking for that! But again, we all have cognitive habits, we search for evidence that reinforce them, and if they’re not there, you’re in some way dissatisfied in the work, as opposed to going, well, what else could the work be, what else could it become, and what actually is dance? What is choreography, what is composition in that context?

I feel like part of the brilliance of Tree of Codes is that it’s quite accessible -- you don’t need to be an expert in dance to be immediately engaged in the performance. How did the work evolve between you, and Jamie XX and Olafur to make it so seamless?
Originally, I wanted to work with the novel, and Olafur is actually friends with Jonathan, so he was immediately open and excited. Olafur and Jamie are very different characters: Jamie is more demure, and very concentrated and quiet, and Olafur is used to working with big teams. Olafur was a breakdancing champion, so he has an amazing physicality himself, so he was happy to kick his shoes off and be in the studio… I spent time in his studio too, so there was a process of unfolding and folding, sometimes working in the lead, sometimes following.

We found with Tree of Codes, the audience response has been massive, with people coming again and again because it connects with them, beyond story, in a way that it just sits in their body, and we are really proud of that. Ultimately, Olafur’s work does that anyway, and Jamie’s work does that, so there’s a kind of alchemy between us that hopefully allows new possibilities of watching choreography, beyond story, to emerge.

Tree of Codes has shown in Manchester, Paris, Melbourne; do you think the show has evolved since it first premiered in 2015?
You really can see the evolution, and I think shows like this often benefit from a repeat viewing. The dancers are making real time decisions, they’re not just doing the movements, they have to find a way of communicating. The more times you see it, the more you see the range of options in a moment, or in a section of choreography. The overall structure of the choreography doesn't change, but the way in which it is performed, the intonation… there is so much possibility in a moment. That is the special thing about live performance, you never get the same thing twice.

Your more recent works, like Autobiography, have been exploring the scientific realm -- genetic sequencing, artificial intelligence. Do you see dance and choreography as capable of extending beyond the human body, as technology continues to develop?
A lot of our future projects are going beyond the stage to find different platforms for that sort of immersive feeling. We actually just built this drone zoo in London, with these huge, spherical white drones that can think choreographically using algorithms and machine learning in response to the movements of the audience. You get this startlingly beautiful interplay between live bodies and drones, and the performance is never the same twice. It just shows you the potential of choreography, beyond the body.

One of the amazing things about making art is that it can make you think: why are we here, what is a body, what are we communicating, what’s it all about -- but that’s also the aspiration of science, and technology, so they are shared endeavours. The more cross-talk there is between art and science, the more interesting discoveries can be made, and that’s why we really love to be in that space.

Tree of Codes is showing from January 6th to 10th at Sydney Festival.