A love of dance and science has bubbled away inside Wayne McGregor for years, emerging fully in his new piece, Autobiography
Turning the pages of an autobiography, a certain formula usually unfolds: tales from childhood, building a career, the search for love, memories both happy and sad. But dance, of course, has the capacity to make the literal otherwise. So when Wayne McGregor announced he was making a show called Autobiography, nobody expected a narrative re-telling of his boyhood in Stockport making up ballroom dances in his bedroom, starting his own company in 1992, or becoming the first contemporary dance artist to be appointed resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet.
Instead, the man whose love of science easily equals his feelings towards dance, decided to go much deeper. So while there might be shades of McGregor's own life in this 2017 work, it's what's inside him (rather than his external world) that we'll see on stage. 'I had my whole genetic code sequenced,' states McGregor. 'The company is 25 years old this year, and I didn't want to do a retrospective but it did make me think about archive and autobiography in relation to that. And I also wanted to make a piece that wrote itself.'
As has undoubtedly been written many times in relation to McGregor, here comes the science bit: having given a sample of his saliva to the Genetics Clinic of the Future in the Netherlands, they sequenced his entire genome. McGregor then created 23 sections of choreography, each with smaller sections inside them: some based on his genetic code, some based on memories, and some inspired by ideas.
So now, the evening before each performance of Autobiography, he presses a button on a specially designed computer programme that uses his genetic code to come up with a series of rules which dictate the structure his next show will take. 'The algorithm is banned from doing exactly the same thing twice,' says McGregor. 'Obviously there are thousands of permutations, so the whole structure, the whole order of events, changes every time.'
Which means that each time Autobiography is performed, it's a completely different show. Fantastic for audience members keen to go more than once, but what about the dancers who only find out the night before what they'll be doing the following day? 'At first it was a bit overwhelming,' admits McGregor. 'But they've got into the rhythm of it now and they're kind of used to it. So it's quite exciting; actually I think they really enjoy it. I don't like to rehearse it in the order that's been chosen, so the dancers don't know what it's going to feel like until they're actually doing it. Some of them might have to dance really intensely for the first 30 minutes and then have hardly anything to do in the second part, or it could be evenly distributed, or it could all be exhausting, or it could be quiet for ages and then knackering: that's one of the beauties of the piece for them: they have to solve the problems in real time.'
If you're sparing a thought for the performers on stage, diving headlong into the (relative) unknown each night, then more than a passing nod of appreciation has to go to the technical crew. Designed by Ben Cullen Williams, a vast aluminium ceiling is raised or lowered to carve up the space, then illuminated by lighting designer Lucy Carter, a long-time McGregor collaborator. Just like the choreography, the set, lighting, and music structure (created by increasingly celebrated electronic composer, Jlin) changes with each push of that magic button.
'The biggest challenge we've had has been that technically, it's a nightmare,' says McGregor. 'One of the things you do with a show is run it until it becomes smooth, but the whole point of this is that sometimes you have juxtapositions that are really jarring. Usually every time we go into a new theatre we would run the first show and then the technicians can come in late the next day to run that same show again. But with this, we have to do a tech rehearsal every single day.'
Talking to McGregor about his work keeps you on your toes, especially if scientific and technological language isn't your natural vocabulary. And yet watching the work itself brings no such challenge. As shown in previous productions such as Chroma, Atomos, Kairos and Tree of Codes (his brand new work for Paris Opera Ballet), even if you don't understand the starting point, the movement itself and emotional intent is there for all to grab.
But to bring it back to McGregor and his life story, what came first: a love of dance or science? 'I think I discovered science through dance,' he says. 'I was obviously interested in the body, and then I started to realise that new technologies were exposing aspects of the body that I never knew about. So I was able to see inside the head or understand chemically what was happening inside my body, and I became more and more fascinated. Running parallel with that, I had a passion for science-fiction and speculating about the future: I guess it all just amalgamated.'
What does it mean to write your own life story? Trailblazing choreographer and director Wayne McGregor has been radically redefining dance in the modern era with his own company, at The Royal Ballet where he has been Resident Choreographer since 2006, and internationally. He has an unmistakable visual style that pushes…