Wayne McGregor | Random Dance
Performed Jan. 14, 2014
The Orpheum Theatre in conjunction with Northrop Auditorium
I always hesitate to read the program notes before viewing a piece. Should I take a hint from the choreographer and try to follow their thinking, or let the piece wash over my psyche before asking for direction? Last Tuesday night, at Wayne McGregor | Random Dance’s performance of McGregor’s FAR at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Minneapolis (the company’s first stop on their U.S. tour), I luckily decided on the latter course of action, for the innocence of the psyche seems to be exactly the part of me McGregor was trying to reach.
As the title suggests, FAR is a study of the remote. McGregor offers glimpses of recognizable settings and movement vocabularies, but immediately confounds any familiarity in the scene by distorting the key element of his stagecraft – the dancing bodies. The piece opens with a rather ominous image, as four dancers holding blazing torches stand on an otherwise dark stage, flanking two dancers in the center. Behind them, suspended from the ceiling, is a white rectangular board, nearly the length of the stage and covered with pegs. With the torchlight flickering against the makeshift spiked wall, the stage becomes, perhaps, a Medieval dungeon. As Giacomelli’s mournful aria “Sposa son disprezzata” (I am wife and I am scorned) fills the space, the central pas de deux unfolds, but without any reference to the despair apparent in the singer’s voice.
Instead, the dancers approach their movement with a matter-of-factness that gives their natural fluidity a dangerously sharp edge. Though their bodies touch base with some basic ballet shapes – the attitude, the arabesque – the piece is not a ballet in the technical sense, and considering McGregor was appointed Resident Choreographer of the Royal Ballet in 2006 (in addition to directing Random Dance, the resident company of Sadler’s Wells), the choreography he’s been producing lately is deeply entrenched in exploring the movement possibilities beyond the ballet and modern dance training of his dancers. For the most part, McGregor negotiates this balance with ease, as his dancers coax their bodies into shapes and pathways that are more animalistic than human.
The piece is not without its hiccups (like a perfect triple pirouette that is starkly out of place in McGregor’s creaturesque phrases), and like any contemporary choreographer, McGregor must make peace with the fact that taking a ballet position and turning the feet in, swaying the back, and raising the shoulders is not the formula for “contemporary ballet”. What does work in McGregor’s favor, however, is his body-centric clarity. With narrative and characterization left by the wayside, McGregor’s choreography focuses on the “how” and “why” of movement, and in the most spectacular moments, it’s possible to see a trail of energy snake its way from one body part to its polar opposite point, and sometimes even into a partner’s body. In the end, it all comes back to the body in motion, to an energy source we can all see and relate to regardless of the choreography’s abstract nature.
Indeed, to the topic of relating one’s mind to one’s body McGregor has dedicated much thought. Having spent time as a Research Fellow in the Department of Experimental Psychology at Cambridge University, his choreography has since become a vehicle for expressing a dialogue between the brain and its instrument. However, as cognitive science shows, the brain activates in response to sensory stimuli, and McGregor alludes to this knowledge through the set design. The suspended spiked wall turns out to be a phenomenally versatile board of lights (thanks to Lighting Designer Lucy Carter and Set Designer rAndom International) that changes its luminosity throughout the choreography. Though the dancers do not react directly to the changing light, it acts as an external energy source, like a foreign sun shining on the distant landscape these dancers inhabit. If the opening tableau invoked the past, then this may invoke the future. When the lights arrange to create a counter and numbers tick away above the dancers’ heads, this only affirms the irrelevancy of time. The occurrence of their movement (or perhaps, the very reasons for its existence) transcends those corporeal boundaries of time and space, as the stage becomes an unbeknownst world made just for them.
After the show, I read through the program for some added insight. As it turns out, FAR is an acronym for Flesh in the Age of Reason, the title of Roy Porter’s much-loved historical analysis of the relationship between the human mind and body. The program offers the following from Porter: “In flesh and blood lay the self and its articulations. With its own elaborate sign language of gesture and feeling, the body was the inseparable dancing partner of the mind or soul….” Like McGregor, Porter places human experience as inseparable from the active or performative body. In the context of FAR, no matter how indistinguishable or abstract the mise en scène may be, McGregor can count on a viewer’s empathetic response to the movement of a human body to mean that the identification of “dancing” is never impossibly out of mental reach.
Through the exploration of the bodies at hand, McGregor and Random Dance present a work that is both a visual spectacle and a psychological exercise, and confronts a pivotal question now common to contemporary dance creation – who is the dancer, and what is the dance? Whether the answer is found in the mind or the body, or somewhere in between, is irrelevant; what matters is the thrilling possibility that more than one answer exists.
Wayne McGregor | Random Dance will be performing FAR in various U.S. cities in the coming months. Click here for tour dates and tickets.