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Man - or Superman? Choreographer Wayne McGregor talks to Maddy Costa about his new work at the Roundhouse

Photo by Nick Mead

Reading about choreographer Wayne McGregor, it’s hard not to think he might be superhuman. In the quarter-century since he established his company, Random (now Company Wayne McGregor), at the age of 21, he has collaborated with a boggling array of multi-disciplinary artists, from musicians Thom Yorke and Jamie XX, to artists Olafur Eliasson and Julian Opie, via architect John Pawson, novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, and more. Since 2006 he’s done this not only with the still-thriving company but as resident choreographer of the Royal Ballet – the first from a contemporary dance background to take up the role. And as well as being conversant with every branch of the arts, in the UK and internationally, he talks about cognitive science, genetic coding and systemic applications of algorithms with an ease most people can just about muster for talking about the weather.

He could come across as intimidating: lofty and dauntingly cerebral. But instead there is a delightful boyishness to the way he answers questions at a mile a minute, radiating boundless energy, irrepressible curiosity and an infectious interest in the world around him. Particularly its humans: the ways in which we move, see, feel. With a new work, +/- Human, opening at the Roundhouse in August, Run Riot called him up to find out what to expect.

Maddy Costa: From the original name for your company to your collaborators on +/- Human – installation artists Random International – the word “random” has a long association with your work. What’s the appeal?

Wayne McGregor: There is something really amazing about the spontaneity of a body, something very instinctive about the way we move. You see it when people dance in clubs: the body is primed in a particular way – but then they just dance, physicality emerges. When I started the company I called it Random because I didn’t want to be tied down to doing a one kind of project: I wanted to do random projects. And there is something interesting about organic forms that emerge over time: the way that emerging technologies have worked with algorithms and emerging structures, “randomness” is built in. It relinquishes control in a way and gives you a system for how something emerges. I have always been interested in how you can do that with live bodies, and sets that can make interactivity different.

In dance, algorithms have been used for centuries: you see it in the way that Trisha Brown and others have developed systems from which choreography can emerge. Now that we are about to mine bigger sets of data and get insight from things that are incomprehensible to humans, that sense of algorithm becomes even more exciting. That is why we are interested in working with systems that are beyond us, in terms of what’s possible.

Maddy: With a work like +/- Human, performed not on stage but in a gallery, with the audience sharing the same space as the dancers, how possible – or even desirable – is it for people to spontaneously start dancing in the audience?

Wayne: That sort of spontaneous dance takes quite a lot of confidence. Bodies still have a lot of inhibitions, the cultural rules that make you behave in certain spaces in particular ways are very ingrained, and the body can’t help but fall into them. It’s hard to make people dance: you have to be immersed in something where you feel the world is not watching.

But participation takes many forms. We are interested in participation where you feel you are part of the experience, where you feel you are creating the experience and there is a different way of doing that from on stage. I’m interested in how you work with systems that respond to you and dancers in real time so you are part of the conversation, and without your presence the physical world wouldn’t work in the same way. That’s where we are thinking that participation can be a bit more freeing. Rain Room, which was another interactive system in galleries [created by Random International in 2012], was a perfect example of this: it was just rain and it stopped raining when you moved underneath it. People really experimented with their bodies in that context because they were playing with something: it’s not about them being exposed or feeling vulnerable, they are actually interacting with something and that gives them a physical freedom they wouldn’t get elsewhere.

Rain Room at the Barbican, 2012 from Random International on Vimeo.


Maddy: You’ve collaborated with half the known universe –

Wayne: I wish!

Maddy: What draws you to the people – Random International, for instance – you choose to collaborate with?

Wayne: I’m just a fan. People forget that artists are also consumers of art: we go and experience stuff and view interesting things. I start from the point of view of: does this artist or scientist inspire me, or do I like what they are doing? Do they give me something new to think about?

I saw a project Random International did 15-years ago and was super interested so I commissioned them for the Opera House for the Deloitte Ignite festival in 2008, making these amazing robotic mirrors as part of an installation. Since then I worked with them for a piece with my company, an installation piece called Future Self which has toured to several galleries, we worked with them for Rain Room, and now +/- Human is another iteration. So we’ve had a long history together – but it came from a point of really loving what they do.


FUTURE SELF | The Experience | Full Version from MADE on Vimeo.


Maddy: What’s the relationship between your company and the Royal Ballet and how do you balance the two?

Wayne: The common denominator is me. I’ve had my company for 25-years, I’ve always had that as my experimental test bed, I’ve always had a big audience internationally, but because we are a small independent company the press of a large opera house takes over. What’s interesting about the Royal Opera House is that it’s a huge organisation, 300-plus amazingly creative people – you have a production department, an amazing stage, a company of dancers, an orchestra – so you can get your ideas resourced very quickly. When I’m making a piece with the company it’s much harder work, you can do exciting interesting things but you have to work on building the partnerships. At the Royal Opera House I’ve got that fluidity: it’s a different climate which really works for me. And I am super lucky to be able to move between both: I get to make a piece every season and I get to work in lots of different contexts.

Image: +/- Human

Maddy: Do you think about the bodies of your dancers and the Royal Ballet dancers in different ways and ask them to do different things?

Wayne: First of all, I think of my work as one thing. I don’t think I am making this at the studio or making this at the Royal Opera House, I just think of it as the work. All bodies are distinctly different, every dancer is specific and individual, and my job as a choreographer is to find what that individualism is and hopefully fuse that with my individualism to make something unique.

People’s perceptions of the body have to widen. It’s instructive the way people still talk about female and male choreographers: this binary idea is so ridiculous. I notice in bodies that sexuality, sensuality, physicality is on a massive continuum and that is one of the beautiful potentials of the body, that you can explore that width of possibility. I am fascinated personally in the evolution of the body through prosthetics and robotics: we have to have a wider view of bodies now before we can even get into that territory, but I do think this conversation is opening up.

How you change perceptions around the body is by making sure that you are making work which in some way celebrates the body. I made a piece with the Royal Ballet with a 54-year-old dancer who came back after retirement. I did a piece about a girl who felt that she was in the wrong body: you can start thematically to work with them but then you can represent it on stage.

The difference with my company is that I have 10-dancers who have chosen to do my work and spend 80, 90-performances a year doing just that. They are dedicated to it, so the level of commitment and focus is really intense and you have to honour that. I have some dancers who have been in my company for eight or nine years: that is a different conversation.

Maddy: It becomes a family relationship – which makes integration with dancers from another company potentially quite a fragile experience.

Wayne: We worked hard at that. We did a management reorganisation a couple of years ago and got an amazing anthropologist to come and work with us: he spends half his time working in Papua New Guinea and the other half working with us. What was incredible about that was him being able to help us articulate and work out what our interpersonal relationships are: where is the consensus of obligation over time? What are our expectations in that situation? Do dancers feel shame in a space? I had never thought of the word “shame” in a rehearsal space. There are so many ethical issues around how you work creatively, what they are expecting and what you are thinking.

We did this whole development plan through anthropology and it armed us to recalibrate the organisation around people. For one thing, we rebranded. Another reason I called the company “Random” was I wanted it to feel like a collective experience, and to share the ownership of the company. But what we then found out from the 30-people that work here was that they’d rather be the company of Wayne McGregor: they wanted the association of that, and to celebrate that they are close to me and the work. I never would have imagined that but that was one of the insights that came out from just talking about what people feel about how they are working. I think bigger organisations should do this more often: it’s really healthy.

Image for Autobiography: Ravi Deepres

Maddy: It’s fascinating how your reference points connect outwardly to so many other disciplines.

Wayne: There is so much for us to learn in the arts world from other influences. Of course it’s important to have artistic influence, but not only. Why wouldn’t you take intelligent systems that are operating in other domains and try and apply them to your context to see if that changes the way in which you make things? It’s not about the domain that you end up thinking about, it’s the individuals who can help you think through something with different eyes.

Maddy: What are some of the materials or ideas that you have been using to inform the work for the Roundhouse?

Wayne: Firstly - plus or minus human - literally that. What is choreography without human beings, and the choreography with human beings? That’s a good start. I’ve always wanted to make a drone piece, and Random International have been interested in autonomous flying objects – but we wanted to do something poetic. How could you do something that is ethereal and beautiful? That’s what we’ve been working on. What we have are spheres that move, they interact with the audience like an installation and in some way they have a conversation with you – and all of a sudden dance happens inside that universe, the orbs interact with that dance. It’s an experiment so I don’t know how it’s going to be, we’re still developing it, but the Roundhouse are really open to us giving it a go. And it’s people coming to see it asking – what is this? We want people to come who are curious. I don’t know if it’s going to work, but something will happen!

Maddy: Dance work isn’t just ethereal but ephemeral – like any other live performance. How much do you think about legacy, and how do you want your work to be recorded or remembered?

Wayne: I’m interested in archive as a point of departure for something new rather than a nostalgia trip through past decisions. I’m too frustrated looking at past decisions: I’m not really that interested. I am making a new piece with the company that opens in October called Autobiography which is a way of looking at your archives. For that we are doing two things: one is that I’ve had all of my genetic code sequenced at Cambridge and the geneticists are working with me in understanding what am I made up of as far as we know right now. What is my hereditary path and what is my predictive potential future in terms of health? Alongside that Google are helping us build a living archive that mines all of my choreographic decisions from the past and helps predict new solutions in the future. It’s learning to interrogate the archive and do something really interesting with it. Because I would like a living archive: I want to be looking forward. If an archive can arm that, that’s phenomenal.

Wayne McGregor's +/- Human
The Roundhouse
10-28 August 2017

Wayne McGregor

Interview by Maddy Costa. Transcription by Ben Romberg.

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