At 41, Wayne McGregor is the hottest dance artist in Europe—if not on the planet—but he is so much more than that, too. He’s part choreographer, part scientist, part techie nerd, part community-arts activist.
To understand the kind of meteoric rise the tall, shaven-headed talent has made in the past decade, you have to know about some of the wild things he’s done in that time. He tapped Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to create giant, mantislike prosthetics for his work Nemesis. He sat in on open-heart surgery (and apparently fainted) as research for the piece Amu. He choreographed sequences of the film Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, using 400 kids from London’s gritty East End. He designed the dance for Radiohead’s “Lotus Flower” video, getting Thom Yorke to rock his own trademark undulating spine and arms. He became a research fellow in the department of experimental psychology at Cambridge University. And on the day the Straight reaches him at home in London, he’s in the midst of preparing for what may be his most crazily ambitious project yet: choreographing thousands of schoolkids for the world-record-setting Big Dance Trail to mark the arrival of the Olympic torch in May. The plan is for 265,000 young people around Britain to dance a five-minute piece simultaneously.
“It’s the biggest single piece of choreography performed in the Guinness Book of World Records. So I’m quite challenged to make a piece that would suit five-year-olds and 15-year-olds,” the affable McGregor says, sounding as excited as a schoolkid himself. “They’ll learn it online and then just before the torch comes, they’ll have two hours in school working on this dance.” As if that feat weren’t enough, he’ll follow it up in July for the Olympics, choreographing a 2,000-person piece in Trafalgar Square.
As you can see, McGregor is not your average dance artist—and that’s what has made him so in-demand. Along with running his own Random Dance, a company he launched in 1992 and sees as his experimental laboratory, he is also resident choreographer at Britain’s esteemed Royal Ballet, and regularly creates works for the likes of the Paris Opera Ballet and the New York City Ballet. It’s Random Dance that we’ll see here at the Playhouse, with its work Entity. It’s a dance experiment around rewiring the mind-body connection, with multimedia projections of mathematical equations and the recurring patterns of natural objects like shells and ferns. The music switches between the haunting strings of composer Joby Talbot and the driving electronica of Coldplay collaborator Jon Hopkins. As so many of McGregor’s works have, the intense, supersonic-speed, rubber-spined movement has attracted descriptionslike this: “It looks unlike anything on Earth” and “There is no other dance vocabulary like this.”
But McGregor insists he never sets out to make something different.
“When I look at my own work I can definitely see the history, the lineage. I can absolutely see [Merce] Cunningham, [William] Forsythe.…I can absolutely see what my imprints are and I want them to be there as well,” he explains. “I had a great conversation with Stephen Sondheim once, when I was young and I was working with him at the National Theatre, and I said to him, ‘How do you write all this amazing, unique music?’ And he said, ‘Well, first of all, you can’t set out to be unique. You just have to do what you do. And your decisions are based on what you know and experience in the world.’
“But for audiences, maybe it’s a combination of elements that makes it a bit unfamiliar,” he continues thoughtfully, and then starts to laugh a bit. “And those combinations sometimes put people off! That range of opinion is something that’s really important in art. I would never want to make peace and let people sit on the fence about something. I would rather have absolute passion and love for the work or have people detest it—kind of where they really don’t like it and it’s provoked them in a way that’s made their whole experience quite uncomfortable. I like those extremes.”
McGregor launched his career on those extremes. But by all accounts, there was little in his normal, middle-class upbringing in Cheshire that indicated the path he’d blaze. There, his interest in dance, he says, started with the popular movies of the ’70s—Saturday Night Fever and Grease.
“When I tell people that, my mum, however, always stops me and says, ‘That’s not quite true: you did English country dance from the age of 4.’ And I guess that is the first time that I learned how to work with other people, to have to dance in formation, so there’s almost this structural thing there from doing that.”
But there was also another huge influence on his work: the fact that his parents, by the time he was 10, had bought him a home computer. He mostly used it for the primitive video games of the era. “I used to spend hours and hours in those days just putting in the code,” he recalls. “And I used to love doing that—I mean, it’s bizarre!”
That mathematical, technical mind, combined with his more recent scientific interest in the brain-body connection, probably best accounts for his choreography—whether for ballet companies or his own Random Dance—looking somewhat alien. For Entity, he worked with a team of cognitive psychologists, aiming to change the way he and his tight team of dancers imagine, or think, before they move.
“We talk so much about dance being instinctive. You know, we put the music on and we feel what we need to do, we go to the studio and we do it,” McGregor says. “But working with cognitive scientists, I realized much more of it comes from the structures deeply embedded in the brain, and they come from experience that you already have. They become almost like routines—and the process with Entity was for me as a choreographer to break out of these sort of patterns, but also my dancers had to break their physical habits.”
This may all sound heavy, but McGregor says it’s not necessarily important to understand all the research he’s done in creating the work. “There are those that are really interested in how the decisions are made.…and that will give them an extra layer of meaning. And then there are those audiences that go in and just see what the thing communicates. And I actually think that they’re both very legitimate and very valuable.
“But what you can’t do is read the program and then wish you hadn’t!” he adds, laughing.
He’s referring to a few British reviewers who have loved the visceral thrill of his shows but moaned about the mind-boggling intellectual explanations he provides in the text accompanying them. McGregor can choreograph a couple of hundred thousand people, yes, but that task may ultimately pale next to getting the art world to think scientifically.
DanceHouse presents Entity, by Wayne McGregor Random Dance, at the Vancouver Playhouse on Friday and Saturday (February 10 and 11).