Arts & Culture

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Dancing To His Own Genes: Wayne McGregor’s “Autobiography”

Dancing To His Own Genes: Wayne McGregor’s “Autobiography”

Kay Ean Leong examines how Wayne McGregor entwines the worlds of science and dance in his newest performance piece

The curtain rises. A solitary man, standing amidst smoke and fog begins to dance. He moves slowly, deliberately, arching into a back-bend and articulating his body to the sounds of cascading bells. His body wraps and warps itself, and he appears at once hauntingly beautiful and almost animalistic. Thus began Autobiography, the new work created by acclaimed contemporary dance choreographer Wayne McGregor, which ran at Sadler Well’s Theatre from the 4th – 7th October.

Autobiography is McGregor’s attempt to capture his life and configure it into movement.  Rather than an autobiography in the sense of a nostalgic or celebratory retrospection, his self-narrative is concerned principally with life at its present, persisting ceaselessly in a series of moments into the future. Life, according to McGregor, “at any given moment is fractured, multiplicitous and felt…the sum of your impressions and experience”.

To explore this protean conception of personal history, he broke down the semantic constituents of the titular word: auto/bio/graphy etymologically becomes self/life/writing, each constituent forming a cornerstone of the concept of the dance. To interrogate the “auto”/“self”, the choreographer, along with his 10 dancers, who form the Company Wayne McGregor, created movements that took inspiration from his own personal experiences, works, music and art.  A “movement library” was thus formed: 23 ‘volumes’, or dance sequences, were chosen to parallel the 23 pairs of chromosomes that encode the human genome.

This so-called “genetic story” that forms the meta-narrative of the dance relates to the principle of “bio” or “life”. The dance is not only about his memories, but his physical makeup. In the summer of 2017, McGregor’s entire genome was sequenced as part of a research study titled, The Genetic Clinic of the Future. According to his dramaturg Uzma Hameed, biological notions of replication, mutation and variation manifest themselves in McGregor’s choreographic method as he transforms and condenses this ‘genetic story’ into movement. He is not a newcomer to adopting an interdisciplinary approach to dance, having previously collaborated with scientists to investigate the science of embodied cognition by utilising dance. Autobiography, however, is his first foray into marrying genetics and dance.

The 23-volumed “genetic story” is sequenced by an algorithm based on McGregor’s genetic code – therein lies the way in which he addresses “graphy”/“writing”. Because each iteration of the performance is determined by code, every performance changes. This is unlike conventional dance performances, in which the same thing is rehearsed and performed every time.  Complexity is derived through this simple programming: in which sequence the 23 dance sequences are presented and who performs them is dictated by code and the laws of chance. Aptly summarized by Hazeed, Autobiography “reinvents itself endlessly”.

Autobiography evidently deals with lofty, abstract ideas, but how does it fare as a dance itself? Set to music by American electronic musician Jlin, the dance is paradoxical – athletic yet sensual, chaotic yet defined. Sinuous grace in movement is set against palpable tension in the still air, lit by the geometric aluminium set by Ben Cullen Williams. One senses the frenetic spontaneity usually seen in improvised dance, yet a sliver of coherence in the choreography is also discernable. Contemporary style is modified by exaggerated balletic movement and steps overtly inspired by popping-and-locking. Individual moves give way to the collective effect of the choreography and his dancers look fully immersed in the art, articulating their bodies to every note in the music.

In all honesty, Autobiography is baffling – even to the experienced eye. Whether the piece is truly interdisciplinary as an effective collaboration between the disparate spheres of genetics and dance is contestable. Without a prior understanding of Autobiography, it is not apparent at all how science plays a part. Yet, it has been somewhat successfully used in the overall concept of the dance by informing the choreographic process, a means through which a choreographer disrupts the conventions of his art. Conceptually, it works. In the theatre, less so.

Autobiography is McGregor in all his spectacular abstraction, but lacks the impact of his most iconic work Chroma, or even the emotional poignancy of his more recent Woolf Works (inspired by three works of Virginia Woolf). Nonetheless, the standing ovation Autobiography received proves that dance (or art, in general) does not need to hold literal meaning, and can effectively engage without resorting to a narrative. It is shocking and provocative, transgressing the style and the traditional choreographic practices of contemporary dance, and for that, we must applaud it.


Ardent fans of McGregor who missed Autobiography will be pleased to know that he will be creating a new work for the Royal Ballet (15 March – 9 April) to celebrate the centenary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth, which will be showcased alongside works by acclaimed choreographers Liam Scarlett and Christopher Wheeldon. General booking opens 18th October 2017, 9am. Ticket prices not stated.

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