Wayne McGregor/Random Dance
by Lauren Butler
November 17, 2010 -- Sadler's Wells Theatre, London, UK
FAR, a new production of Wayne McGregor/Random Dance, which debuted 17
November 2010 at Sadler’s Wells, is an exhilarating spectacle of contemporary dance. We are in a golden age indeed when a company producing such abstract, challenging work attracts some of the most impressive dancers in the world, and commands night after night of packed houses and standing ovations.
McGregor is well known both for his choreography and for his collaborations with neuroscientists, computer scientists, visual artists, and composers. With these partnerships, he has succeeded in bringing contemporary dance to a wider audience than ever before. Nonetheless, the rhetoric around these collaborations can be distractingly bloated and vague. FAR’s promotional material, for instance, describes the work as an inquiry into the theories of the Enlightenment. However, upon arriving at the theatre, I found the lengthy program notes mentioned only a contemporary book about the Enlightenment – the late Roy Porter’s “Flesh in the Age of Reason” (FAR being an acronym thereof), and from that book, only one quote: “In flesh and blood lay the self…soma and psyche, heart and head, the outer and the inner – all merged, and all needed to be minutely observed.” This quote served as a segue into a rehashing of McGregor’s previous work with cognitive scientists rather than any investigation of Enlightenment theories.
Yet the moment the curtain rose, my caviling seemed petty in the extreme. Four dancers dressed in black entered slowly from the wings, holding torches, while a couple (Paolo Mangiola and Daniela Neugebauer) danced to a sampling of Giacomelli’s “Sposa son disprezzata” (incorrectly attributed in the program to Vivaldi). Wearing spare, flesh-colored clothes, they bowed to each other with violent alacrity, sometimes joining together in a fumbling simulation of ballroom
dancing, sometimes spinning apart. The duet evolved into sinuous partnering, with off-balance promenades, rippling backbends, and startling extensions. More than once I was reminded of Kylian’s “Petite Mort.”
When the torchbearers drifted into the wings, Mangiola and Neugebauer lay down to face the light installation at the rear of the stage, as if watching television. Much was made of this light installation in the program notes – rAndom International’s Swarm Light is a box fitted with 100 glass spines containing 3200 bulbs operating in pre-programmed or sound-responsive algorithmic patterns. However, as it was hung at the back of the stage facing out, its three-dimensional
effects could not be appreciated, and it only resembled an old-fashioned Atlantic City marquee.
The Vivaldi faded and Ben Frost’s atmospheric soundscape took over, causing the lighting installation to spark into life. Frost’s composition was riveting, its almost subsonic bass rattling our seats as the lights became blinding. The sampled sounds were at once mischievous and menacing – rewound voices, whale songs, sizzling,
chiming, the distorted signals of a Marconi transmitter, and at times a recording of what seemed to be an old man grumbling to himself during a midnight walk in a graveyard.
The couple disappeared, the installation darkened to one beaming light, and from beneath it, Alexander Whitley emerged to dance a solo in which he appeared to strive for classical lines, only to be thwarted by some mysterious presence at his heels that caused him to freeze, crumple, and spin. The sheer athleticism here was
More solos, duets, and trios emerged as the soundscape continued. Each dancer’s sequences were unique – based on individual motifs such as Whitley’s spirals and Agnes Lopez Rio’s rocketing kicks. In the most memorable duet, Michael-John Harper came jittering to the front of the stage, his tortured gait reminiscent of WWI films of shell-shocked soldiers. He was quickly joined by Louis McMiller, who appeared to mimic his walk before laying his hands over his chest as if in
apology. Their duet was uneasy and passionate – were they meant to be brothers or lovers, I couldn’t help wondering – yet in some lifts there were undeniable moments of aggression. Melancholy chimes sounded.
The company swarmed over the stage and a song emerged from the soundscape – Helgi Hrafn Jonsson singing, “Are we angels? I wish we were” – as the women of the company danced together in twos and threes, creating fleet, delicate patterns. Dry ice smoke billowed through the dove-grey light. The company men appeared at the edges of the women’s dance to watch.
Exactly halfway through the performance, when one of the men suddenly strode across the stage to grab Anna Nowak by the shoulders and remonstrate with her out loud (I was too far away to hear the exact text), the moment appeared disturbingly genuine. Two women came to Nowak’s defense but it was too late; the mood had shifted and a fight was on. The lights lowered and went red. The soundscape accordingly darkened. The entire ensemble circled and faced off, thrusting at one another, falling, grappling, forming coalitions that quickly imploded. In one exhilarating passage, Jessica Wright fought with herself like a woman possessed by demonic visions. Drums pounded out triplets under an atonal buzzing that might have been a distorted guitar or a chain saw.
Two squares of greenish light suddenly singled out two of the dancers – Davide di Pretoro and Catarina Carvalho – who danced in wary ellipses around each other. The stage filled with couples, some of them dancing with an almost neo-classical refinement, others wiggling across the marley like embryos. Just then the singing began again, providing a welcome respite from the wall of sound: In flesh, in
blood, lay the self to a haunting piano arpeggio.
The last two duets of the evening were exquisite, showing couples trapped in their bodies, trapped on the physical plane with one another, flopping irritably or cleaving with violent desperation. Anna Nowak is the most astonishing dancer I have ever seen, utterly fearless, sometimes appearing so out of control I feared she might fall and hurt herself. Yet she always recovered with a casual shift of direction – or a flawless triple pirouette, just to mix things up.
My only quarrel with the piece itself was that the choreography needed more variety of mood and meter. Apart from the Giacomelli and the two songs, the soundscape kept up a consistent volume, timbre, and mood throughout the hour. When the choreography kept a similar pace, the effect was monotonous and taxing. Especially during the sequences of duets and solos, I longed for one of them to be super-slow, or sped up, or at least weighted with some emotional pitch or concept we hadn’t yet seen.
Yet this didn’t keep me from joining in the applause and foot-stomping that greeted the curtain calls. The audience at Sadler’s Wells exploded in the kind of whoops and hollers that British audiences typically reserve for outdoor rock concerts.
The cheering continued in the post-show talk that followed the performance of 18 November 2010. About half of the audience remained for the event – dance students and art students, wearing brightly colored scarves, vintage brooches, hair of pink or orange or blue. McGregor, affable and welcoming, sat on stage with Alistair Spalding, Artistic Director of Sadler’s Wells. Both seemed taken aback at first by the volume of applause. McGregor dispelled my earlier rancor by elucidating his interest in the Enlightenment and the encyclopedias edited by Diderot. “I just liked the idea of dissolving the mysteries of the body,” he said, citing a stunning revelation of the time – that women had the same amount of ribs as men. His interest in Porter’s book, he said, was chiefly to harvest ideas that might enliven the creative process within the collective of his company.
When members of the audience posed questions about the narrative of the work, McGregor confessed that if a narrative existed, it was “a series of non-sequiturs,” enacted upon a stage that was in “a permanent state of collapse.” These non-sequiturs, he explained, took the form of visual images, acoustic images, and kinesthetic images that moved through the collective of dancers like impulses in a flock of birds – distributive cognition.
Another question brought about a general discussion of the kind of dancer McGregor prefers to work with. Interestingly, he stressed that “one takes technique for granted” and he mostly looks for open-mindedness and creativity. He wishes to “challenge audiences” to view unconventional movements and “dysfunctional, damaged, traumatized bodies.” This rather begged the question of why he’s chosen to assemble a troupe of dancers who are all exclusively and extensively trained in ballet, and who are all so innately glamorous that they couldn’t make an ugly or distressing move to save their life. Perhaps in the future McGregor will collaborate with disabled dancers, in the style of Alito Alessi?
Despite these picayune points, the event was unforgettable. I wish we could have had one more curtain call, to give the dancers their due.
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