Dance and the digital: An interview with Wayne McGregor

By Steve Dow

The Sydney Festival-bound show’s choreographer loves mixing the body with technology

Tree of Codes. Photograph by Stephanie Berger

Relationships between machine, brain and body have long been British choreographer Wayne McGregor’s obsession. He uses technology to try to understand how his dancers intuitively – or habitually – embody creative expression. This year, McGregor’s premiere dance works in London have explored how our great “sensorial organ”, the body, interacts with drones – in the show +/- Human – and, in Autobiography, how our human genome shapes our destinies via millions of genetic permutations, for which McGregor had his own genome sequenced, with 11,000 pages returned in just the first level of analysis.

During a Skype interview from India, where his eponymous company is performing, a bald, lightly bearded McGregor marvels that the algorithms within these gene expressions alter our codes, our human stories, due to inheritance and environment. “Your autobiography is being written all the time,” he says, after a cough and apology for a hoarse voice due to the air pollution outside his Delhi hotel.

McGregor hopes to bring Autobiography to Australia in the coming year. For now, however, his electric, kinaesthetic 2015 ensemble work Tree of Codes, a hit in its Australian premiere at the Melbourne Festival in October, will return to Australia for the Sydney Festival (ICC Sydney Darling Harbour Theatre, January 6 – 10).

Having been staged more than 50 times internationally, Tree of Codes takes Jonathan Safran Foer’s book of the same name as part of its inspiration. While collaborator Olafur Eliasson’s visual concept was inspired by Safran Foer’s book, itself a sculpted piece of art with a different die-cut on every page, I interpreted the dance work to be playing with notions of our lives being increasingly atomised through individuated mobile screens: the production cleverly uses mirrors, coloured screens and other optical lighting tricks to multiply the dancers’ bodies from an array of angles.

But then, I tell McGregor, I saw Tree of Codes in a tired state, making the dancing perhaps more hallucinatory than it otherwise might have been.

McGregor, 47, who spent a year as a research fellow of the department of experimental psychology at Cambridge University, sees our mobile screen culture as both good and bad.

“I’ve grown up with computers and I love it myself. There’s a lot of richness there. But I’m also someone who’s very inside my body, in a studio with no screens there, and just with another body feeling someone’s weight and being very physical.

“A lot of screen-based work or virtual reality helps you reconnect with [your] body. It gives you spatial and physical skills that perhaps you haven’t had before. As long as you then experience them in the real domain. Spending hours on screens, you’re missing something. How much do you look up?”

McGregor is not worried that technology’s great potential is being reduced by human myopia. “We all get distracted by cat videos,” he says. “That’s fine. That natural, dendritic way of thinking, where you start in one place and end up some place else, is one of the beautiful things about the internet. It allows you to see corners of the world you would [otherwise] never experience.”

In his latest show, +/- Human, McGregor boldly mixes dancers interacting with drones that “think in real time for themselves”, he says.

“There are lots of ways that artificial intelligence and machine learning can help us calibrate for the good, and it all depends on the application,” he says. “It’s happening, so we have to explore it. We have no option. Artists need to be right in the middle of the conversation.”

Fear was at work, too, when McGregor sequenced his own genome, which he eventually turned into 23 choreographic passages from his life to match the 23 pairs of chromosomes in each human cell. Friends and family were anxious if it turned out he had markers for, say, cancer or Alzheimer’s disease. The results, he says, were “in a good way, not revelatory”, although he worried about holding back information from loved ones.

McGregor was born and grew up in Stockport, England, in 1970, to parents of Scottish farming stock. “They had no real interest in the arts at all,” says McGregor, who lives with his partner, Belgian-born dancer and choreographer Antoine Vereecken, and their two dogs in London’s Islington. “They weren’t taking me to galleries every five minutes. But what they were doing was giving me the confidence to try, and experiment with new things.”

At eight, McGregor started Latin American, ballroom and disco dancing, influenced by John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever and Grease – and if that sounds fabulously camp, he and Vereecken confirm they are avid fans of Baz Luhrmann’s movie Strictly Ballroom. At ten, McGregor was creating his own versions of the rumba and cha-cha.

In 1992, he founded Random Dance, which grew into Studio Wayne McGregor, at a time when he was performing in London’s rave culture. “It had a lot of impact on me, because you see people do weird things, many of them,” he laughs, “obviously drug induced. You see them have a level of freedom that you don’t often see in other contexts. We have a very normalised view of the body now. Increasingly, we’re doing less and less. It’s thrilling to see the capacity of the body, what it can do and what it can say.

“The collective experience of people dancing together is also really thrilling. Music surges through our body. I try to do that when I’m working with collaborators to get music to surge through the audience’s body, so that they get a kinaesthetic experience of watching. I try to do that in Tree of Codes. Dance is such a powerful thing, and I want everyone to experience what that freedom is like.”

Since 2006, McGregor has been resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet, the first contemporary dance choreographer invited to the role. One Financial Times reporter suggested McGregor had been “pushing boundaries and shocking audiences” there.

Surely he doesn’t shock for the sake of it? “No, no, I mean, some of the audience there, if you said ‘boo’ they’d be shocked,” he says. “You can’t do much about that. Sometimes if you watch anything that’s unfamiliar, because people who watch anything have frameworks of things they feel comfortable with, often they collect evidence to reaffirm their opinion of what ballet should be. For me, there are no rules. Our job is to actually look at all the potentials of that art form.

“But I’ve noticed the Covent Garden audience have become more diverse and open and excited about what they can engage with. Sometimes they don’t like the work, which is totally fine. Often there are violent reactions to it. I take that also as about their inner frameworks and how they’re watching and perceiving the world and what they know to be true.”

How does McGregor reconcile the duality of the cerebral, of human psychology, with the emotionally intuitive nature of dance, which surely shouldn’t be over-thought? “In a way, that’s been the subject of our research for the past 12 or 13 years, because I’ve worked with those cognitive neuroscientists for that time.

“One of the paradoxes about dance is that we think it’s intuitive, but actually, often what we call instinct is reapplying habits to the way, for instance, we listen to music, and we use that to stimulate a very particular way of moving. If you can start to unpick your cognitive habits, in terms of processing how you see the world, it actually offers up a whole lot of options you wouldn’t have had. We’re looking at what is intentional, and asking, ‘Can you ever really be instinctive?’

“All artists of the past have tried to undo their creative habits. When you recognise them in yourself and other people you are working with over a long period, and articulate them and label them, [you can] work in a different way with an attention shift. It’s expanded our palette in a really amazing way. There’s so much more to do.”

And yet we often deny the primal need to dance. Why is this so?

“We start to care too much about what other people think,” says McGregor. “We teach expression of dance and creativity out of young people, as if it’s in some way showing off or being indulgent. It’s a real shame. But it doesn’t have to be like that. There’s a resurgence now in body–mind centring; people do Pilates and yoga.

“The more that we become screen based, the more we have a fundamental need to connect to gravity.”

Steve Dow

Steve Dow is the 2020 Walkley arts journalism award recipient.


Tree of Codes. Photograph by Stephanie Berger

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