Dance of life: Company Wayne McGregor at The Arts Center NYUAD

There’s a long and (usually) distinguished tradition of science overlapping with art. True, it’s usually science or technology overlapping with design or fine art – from Renaissance man Leonardo to Marc Quinn, from Turner and Kandinsky to Picasso, from jewellery made of unconventional materials to 3D printed furniture.

And then there’s dance. For instance, as part of the Lyon Dance Biennale last September, three European institutions – Theatre de Liege in Belgium, Sadler’s Wells in the UK and Maison de la Danse in France – co-hosted a ‘dance Hackathon’ under the tagline “imagine the future of dance”.

It was all about using technology on stage, but also about how tech could help choreographers and dancers themselves to develop their skills “and develop new aesthetics,” as Jonathan Thonon from Theatre de Liege put it.

It’s not exactly surprising; both science (and technology) and art (and design) are attempts to understand and describe the world around us. Maybe they come from different traditions in terms of content and methods, and sometimes the intended audiences are different, but the motivations are fundamentally similarly: to observe and hopefully understand the world around us, and then share that commentary.

It’s clear that good artists, particularly those who are conceptually rigorous, will choose the medium that is most suitable for the questions that they are interested in exploring. Which brings us to Wayne MacGregor and Autobiography, 2019’s opening performance in The Red Theater at The Arts Center NYUAD.

“I’m interested in learning about other knowledge sets and using them as a kind of transferable energy in my own process,” said McGregor in an interview recently. And that has manifested itself in many ways, leading The New York Times to describe him as “an adventuresome experimenter with a restless mind, intent on pushing his disparate audience, his collaborators and himself”.

Born in 1970, Wayne McGregor CBE is a British choreographer and director, a multiple award winner noted over more than 25 years for innovations in performance that have contributed to a radical redefinition of dance and movement in modern times. His insatiable curiosity about the creative potential of movement have led him to experiment with a whole catalogue of inputs – different artistic forms, technological interventions, numerous scientific insights – that have kept him and his companies at the cutting edge of contemporary arts.

McGregor is regularly commissioned to make new work by and has works in the repertoires of the most important ballet companies in the world. He is in demand as a choreographer for theatre (Old Vic, National Theatre, Royal Court), opera, music videos (Radiohead, The Chemical Brothers), fashion shows, and TV performances. (He also has a side-career as a movement coach for the movies, including Harry Potter films and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.)

Small wonder that the Financial Times called him “a pioneer in exploiting the links between his art, and the scientific development that have revolutionised 21st-century life”. Autobiography represents something of a pinnacle, or at least an important way-station on that journey.

An autobiography, of course, is an account of one’s own life; Wayne McGregor has taken it literally, sampling the data from his genetic make-up to organise the structure of his latest work. In short – McGregor’s genes have been allowed to take control of the choreography.

In collaboration with scientists from the Wellcome Trust, McGregor arranged for his own genome to be sequenced as part of a research study. McGregor then developed a choreographic interpretation on 23 chapters in his life story to date.

Why 23? because it’s normal for each of us to have 23 pairs of chromosomes in our DNA. Each chapter is an abstract meditation on personal memories that have marked his personal development, from a school photo to a poem, a piece of art, and more.

Nick Rothwell then converted McGregor’s gene sequences into an algorithm, and that randomly selects the order of the sections in each performance (the beginning and end event are always the same, so it’s choosing from 21 of the chapters). The algorithm also determines which dancers will perform each piece. The result: a vast number of possible permutations, meaning that each performance is effectively a new world premiere.

Not for the first time, McGregor’s work has an impressive list of collaborators – notably the electronic musician and producer Jlin (aka Jerrilynn Patton), visual artist Ben Cullen-Williams (who has won awards for Autobiography‘s set design), and lighting designer Lucy Carter.
Most of the music is by Jlin, electronic music that samples white noise, found sound, and bells and whistles (really), interspersed with other pieces by artists such as Max Richter and Ryuichi Sakamoto. There’s also a nod to the long-distant past in the shape of Corelli’s Concerto Grosso in D Major.

Of course the soundtrack meshes tightly with the choreography, but the lighting and the set are also intrinsically connected. A grid of metal lights hovers over the stage from the beginning, sometimes descending with dancers moving low beneath the structure. At other times they inhabit a black stage plunged into a soft haze, the kind that suggests faraway memories. Lucy Carter’s lighting generally relies on naked white lights varying from almost blinding through milky to dim blue/violet.

As for the dancing – well, the view of the Guardian was that “there’s a new expressive subtlety to McGregor’s choreography’ and the dancing is “mesmerisingly good … By cutting back on the spectacular, McGregor makes it easier for us to appreciate the care with which he positions his dancers in time and space”.

You don’t actually need to know the DNA background to appreciate the show itself, of course, but throughout Autobiography you’ll feel you are watching life in its infinite variety of moods, feelings, thoughts, in fleeting moments never to be repeated.

Autobiography by Company Wayne McGregor plays The Red Theatre on Thursday 7 February and Friday 8 February at 8pm. Tickets are the NYAUD’s standard AED 100 plus VAT, which is a real bargain for work of this quality and creativity; book here.

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