Last updated: April 7, 2008 7:04 am

The body from inside out

Fifteen months into his appointment as the Royal Ballet’s resident choreographer, Wayne McGregor is settling in nicely. He negotiates the labyrinthine corridors of the Royal Opera House with a practised and purposeful air. His long strides lead us both into a room where he sits on a too-small sofa and begins to stretch sideways, a seemingly automatic gesture of preparation.

When he finally sits still, his posture is languorous, but as soon as he starts to talk his conversation is explosive. It is a compelling combination.

Eyebrows were raised when McGregor’s appointment was announced at the end of 2006. The Royal Ballet had not had a resident choreographer for 16 years, and now they were unveiling one who had made his first ballet just six years earlier. McGregor was much better known for his contemporary dance work, which seemed far removed from the audience favourites that dominated the Covent Garden programme.

But it was a clever move. McGregor had just premiered his latest work, Chroma, on stage at Covent Garden, using the bombastic music of White Stripes, the minimalist designs of John Pawson, and a choreographic language that stretched the human form into thrilling, strange directions. Reviews were rapturous, the house sold out, with young audiences piling in to catch the most exciting show in town. The Royal Ballet seized the moment, and their man, with improbable haste.

McGregor admits he was surprised by Chroma’s success, and treats it slightly superstitiously. “The synchronicity was such that it went really well. Other times it doesn’t go so well.” But he is sure of one thing, and one can imagine him impressing future colleagues at the house with the stark simplicity that he repeats now: “It is very important for ideas to drive creative organisations. And Chroma was a very pure idea.”

There used to be an ironic media joke about the pointlessness of making talk shows about dance, but an hour in McGregor’s company makes a mockery of the joke’s condescension. Ask him about his latest project, Entity, opening at Sadler’s Wells this week, and he launches into an erudite explanation for its sources that is as baffling as it is original. The idea came to him, he says, while he was “reading about latest developments in cognitive science”. (This is said as if it were the most natural reading matter for a 37-year-old choreographer.)

“I have been interested in the connection between the brain and the body for the past seven years. We always say that dance is so instinctive, and of the moment, yet we spend so much time talking about it.”

The result, performed by his Random Dance company, which he founded at the age of 22, is a dance that will “look at the body from inside out”. McGregor has worked with 12 neuroscientists from around the world to examine the nature of kinaesthetic intelligence, producing a series of computerised “choreographic agents” from which he has drawn inspiration for the stage.

Never mind ballet, I say, it sounds a little like The Matrix. “It’s funny, people tell me that my work is futuristic, but I always say it is about what is happening right now,” he responds.

But maybe an art form that looks so obsessively to the past cannot help but regard the present as the future? “Exactly. But these are the debates that are happening in science at the moment. They could – and should – be used. They can work as a creative filter for the stage.”

In spite of the stubbornness of the two cultures divide, McGregor says he finds it completely “natural” to unite artistic and scientific systems of thought in his work.

“We get very lazy with dance,” he admonishes. “Our visual literacy is built on aural literacy; we are used to watching and listening together. But we now have this great tradition of contemporary dance that has challenged perceptions about the [art form’s] hierarchies. I was once told, when I was working on an opera, that choreography was at the bottom of the opera tree.” He laughs out loud. “That fascinated me. What does it mean?”

He likes to call his choreographic experiments “little provocations”. All very well, but how does he know they will result in good dance? “I don’t,” he replies instantly. “You never know. But I don’t like being bored. I like to be actively curious about things. And if you get interesting people working on interesting ideas, and there is passion there, then the piece you produce can’t just be cast off, even if it is detested.”

How about the dancers, I ask? Surely a lifetime of bleeding feet, striving to perfect steps conceived more than 100 years ago, was no preparation for this kind of abstract, free-thinking experimentation?

“They love it. It inspires them. They want to be part of the work’s creation. Dancers are young people who are artistically curious, whom I often see at cultural events, in different contexts. And those dancers that are particularly curious and open are the ones I enjoy working with.”

Does he feel that he may be luring them away from their tradition? McGregor pulls an impatient face. “There is this tired argument that I am going to wreck classical ballet. My own personal opinion is that there should be a wide range of work around, but that new work should be the driving force of any large organisation. That can only work if you have balance. And if you get that absolute balance, between legacy and invention, right, you have a group of empowered and excited people.”

“There were four Auroras in Chroma,” he announces proudly, referring to the prima ballerinas who were performing in his work and the classical leading role in Sleeping Beauty at the same time. “And if you have someone who can dance Aurora brilliantly, and then come into the studio and work with a choreographer in creating a new work, then you have an exceptional dancer.”

Nevertheless, there is a large body of dance commentators who still concern themselves with classical technique, above almost all else. “We are in a different phase now than we were 75 years ago,” he fires back sharply. “Bodies are different. They have evolved. There is more elasticity, more stamina. Why would someone like me make a three-act story ballet with a codified technique? It doesn’t interest me at all.”

A similar iconoclasm can be detected in “Deloitte Ignite”, the Royal Opera House’s three-day festival in September aimed at “London’s artistically curious young professionals who may not yet have considered the Royal Opera House as somewhere for them”. McGregor will curate the first edition of the festival, which will bring together visual art, food, scents and, this being McGregor, a “cognitive scientist who will test members of the audience about how they see things”.

McGregor is completely on-message with the festival’s artistic aspirations, if not its explicit attempt to lure a new type of person to the house. “This is not some cynical marketing exercise about going for a funky new audience,” he asserts. It is, he says, about interpreting the house’s artistic programme in a new way, “looking at the actual contents of a Don Giovanni or a Nutcracker and seeing what other artists can bring to that combination of elements; it is an interesting ecology”.

But it will surely bring in a new audience too? “Yes, but it is the ideas and the content that will encourage them to come. Not this sense of: ‘This is good for you because you are a young professional’.”

If I were part of the Royal Opera House management, my only concern about McGregor would be that his voracious eclecticism will not keep him tied to the dance world for very long. He has already spread his talents far and wide, working on a stage version of Michel Ocelot’s wonderful French-African fable Kirikou, which is attracting hundreds of thousands of spectators in France, and moving into opera, where he is certainly not content to remain at the “bottom of the tree”.

“If I were asked just to do the dance steps for a Salome or a Carmen, I wouldn’t do it,” he says.

He thinks that choreography is about “inventing the physical language” of the work, and would insist on complete control of that.

It sounds like directing, I say. “I think that is what choreographers do.” He has already directed Dido and Aeneas, at Milan’s La Scala, and I ask him how it went down with that house’s notoriously conservative audience. “They went mad. Loved it. There is this perception that audiences will react badly to new ideas, but it doesn’t always work like that. There will be members of an audience who want to be entertained, and go home smiling, and that is legitimate, that is fine; go and see Riverdance. But often they want an intellectual challenge too. When I go to watch dance, I want to be excited, I want to see people making brilliant work.

“When I first saw [William] Forsythe, I sat and fidgeted all the way through, and when it finished, I thought, ‘I am so giving up choreography!’. It was so amazing, you couldn’t unpick it, it took me somewhere else. I think people want that.”

‘Entity’ is at Sadler’s Wells, London, April 10-12.. Tel: 0844 412 4300

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