DNA Can Dance: Wayne McGregor Reviewed & Interviewed

Wayne McGregor has created a dance work based on his own DNA, with music by JLin. In this interview, shortly after the premiere of Autobiography, McGregor talks to Suze Olbrich about codes, stories, spaces, and the nature of live-ness.

Autobiography photo by Richard Davies

In the dark at Sadler’s Wells, during the world premiere of Wayne McGregor’s Autobiography, I scrawl notes on loose paper – folded and re-folded, occasionally written over. Which, it quickly transpires, is perfect as the show rejects such common means of storytelling as linear narratives, divinable arcs and closure; instead it favours fragments, feelings, palimpsests. And every performance is unique, because Autobiography is re-drafted, recreated with each re-telling, just as every life story is.

McGregor heads his own dance company – Company Wayne McGregor – which will be 25 years old next year, and for which Autobiography was made; he’s also Royal Ballet choreographer-in-residence. The staging of McGregor’s ‘life’ was never going to be simple, what with him being an insatiably inquisitive choreographer-sage. So in a bid for brevity let’s just say that Autobiography is sculpted from a triumvirate of inputs: McGregor’s genetic code, sequenced as part of a Dutch research study; a trove of personally resonant items including photographs, films, books and dance inspirations such as Merce Cunningham, transformed into a ‘life library’ of 23 choreographic ‘volumes’ in collaboration with the ten featured dancers; and an algorithm, created as part of a nascent genetic science-dance partnership with the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute that decides – anew, every time – not only what volumes will be performed, but their order, dynamics, and casting.

Quite the artistic flesh-to-tech-to-flesh feat, but (more importantly) it’s a riot. A visceral, emotive, enlivening wonder to behold. And to listen to – the score is by JLin, the electronic impresario who freed up Chicago’s footwork sound via her expansive, rhythmically intricate compositions. The soundtrack to Autobiography is complex and compelling. And it’s a canny match for choreography that alternately accelerates and freezes time, flips moods like tossing cards, draws you to the edge of your seat then snap-back with a straight spine. Its mostly black and (gradations of) white lighting and design – an ‘ecosystem’ – by frequent McGregor-collaborators Ben Cullen Williams and Lucy Carter feels more like a dynamic installation conversing with humans and sonics than anything ‘set’-like. The costume, by Aitor Throup, is similarly impactful in its simplicity, elegance, fluidity.

And then there is the dancing, those bodies. Desiring experience before theoretics, I was unaware at the premiere that they were performing scenes, roles, movement sequences, as dictated by an algorithm – all of it live, for the very first time. The cognitive machinations alone blow my mind, the embodiment staggers. Each volume has a title and it’s human nature to seek corresponding patterns or narratives given such cues, but after a short while it felt more rewarding to quit storying and open up to pure emotion and energy as expressed by the phenomenal artists on stage. By way of example, some scenes from the premiere: ‘avatar’, (notes: glacial, impossible flux, vital beauty); ‘(dis)equilibrium’ (crunchy club staccato, tumult, hug); ‘sleep’ (sex, colour!, why so free?); ‘traces’ (balletic feels stagnant, suffocated, exaggerated); ‘knowing’ (euphoric, sinuous grace, what would it be like to watch it all without music?); ‘ageing’ (macabre, lush shapes, tangled bodies, unison?, how did we get this way?).

A few days later, I’m shown around the recently opened Studio Wayne McGregor, a creative arts space for companies including McGregor’s own as well as guests and communities; it’s housed within the cavernous Here East campus by the canal in Hackney Wick. It’s a trip. Designed in collaboration with architectural firm We Not I, the freestanding multilevel structure, framed by white-washed warehouse walls featuring works on loan from the Lisson Gallery, contains three generously sized dance studios and smaller mixed-purpose rooms linked by slender walkways and staircases. It’s undeniably impressive, but also warm and intimate what with the mezzanines, glass walls and skylights that invite occupants to peer into each others’ spaces. And on its roof, overlooking Queen Elizabeth Park: a snug, silver caravan. This is where I join McGregor to discuss life, how to capture it, analyse it, feel it and tell it fully live over and over and over again.

Asked how the next three nights of the debut run panned out, McGregor is quick to praise his cast: “It was electric. The audience got noisier [with every show], they were really into it. The dancers were incredible, they danced brilliantly. This piece is not straightforward for them. Dancers love that thing where you build up to first night, and you’re nervous, but then every [following] night is the same.”

Autobiograph photo by Andrej Uspenski

I’m not sure I’ve fully comprehended Autobiography’s relentless morphing…

Wayne McGregor: There are 23 volumes, each with several permutations. A volume might have five bits of choreography in it and then [when performed to the algorithm’s instructions] it could be that structure forwards or backwards, or with different gender roles; it might be a structure that starts on the inside then moves out; it might be a totally different thing to a different piece of music. So, reordering of 23 is already rich, but reordering of 23 and their component parts, each of which are being made in real time and not knowing what’s coming, is challenging. What’s interesting to me is how you solve the problem in between sections, and what narrative, what meaning, what connections evolve over time. It was also partly a response to how your genetic code is so huge in one respect with billions of bits of information, but still only comprised of four letters, in different combinations. How do you work on that level of data? And the final great thing about it is that those volumes can be moved, so I can make a new volume three or 18, at any point, and swap them out. It’s this idea of autobiography carrying on through the life of a piece rather than it being something of the past that’s fixed.

Yet some of the past is necessarily present within Autobiography, stemming from McGregor’s amassed inspirations, professional history and inherited biology.

WM: One way of looking at my personal archive is the memories: the photos, the poetry that I’ve written (although I didn’t tell the dancers I’d written it); stuff that I was sharing that I hadn’t really ever shared. Then there’s the [choreographic] archive, and something I’ve been working on is interrogating the entire archive and using artificial intelligence to make speculative futures from it. The third element is genetics, which is partially your genealogy root, but also, what is the speculative future in terms of what it exposes such as predispositions. I like these speculative fictions, and some of the choreography is speculative and built in real time, for example: one of the sections is called ‘fazing’, and I made very tight choreographic units inside of it, but they’re played at the discretion of the dancers around rules. That’s one of the reasons it’s so stressful – the parameters are shared, but the organisation is formed every night. It’s a wild field of constraints, which you pick and construct, and then they dissipate. I think it’s a beautiful metaphor for how we live, with these unexpected challenges that arise. I always thought it would be weird to do an autobiography that was in some way linear, it’s not interesting to me.

Still, I wonder if it wasn’t hard to relinquish so much creative control?

WM: In every cell in your body you have your whole genetic blueprint. Some of it is the code around the liver, and that volume of liver is expressed differently depending on what part of the liver that cell’s in so although you hold the whole library in the cells, each one’s expression of it it is individual – and that’s why I wanted to do that. While we have a collective memory of the piece’s overall scope and a clear idea of what the volumes are, the expression is personal: it is individual and it makes itself.

Which is perhaps more honest or authentic, in terms of a live performance, because it leaves no room for by-rote expression?

WM: It is trying to question: what is the nature of live-ness? We’ve had years of making pieces that might be performed 120-130 times around the world. How do you keep freshness? At what point does it become not-live? So I wanted to build a system which has inbuilt freshness, or inbuilt live-ness. And I wondered if it also helps people watching question how they look at something, and construct meaning. A lot of dance critics want concreteness, they want an organisation over time that leads them in a particular direction to a certain outcome. That’s one way of watching, and it can be fantastic and I love that, but we don’t construct meaning like that in our daily lives – we just don’t. I considered how we could help audiences [see that], even if we make them uncomfortable, via disjunctions, with leaps and transitions. Those interspaces become very interesting. It’s unsettling, it’s not smooth, but I like the roughness, the rawness of things smashing together or just cutting out. I’ve been very excited about it.

JLin’s invigorating score also exemplifies Autobiography’s celebratory unpredictability – how was it developed?

WM: She had all of my data, and I’d say, I’m working with this Olivier De Sagazan video right now – this amazing French artist who does bodily clay transformations – or with my astrological chart. And we all started with a brilliant book, The Gene, by a writer that I love called Siddartha Mukherjee, so JLin would go, Okay, I’ve read this bit, and I’ve sent this. She wrote a piece named, ‘Blue Eye’ as I’ve got blue eyes. Then as we got more units, I would request certain types of things. It was very organic and, as the music is of her and of me, it’s also autobiographical of her. One of the things I love about her music is that it feels kind of improvised, she starts in one state then moves into another and into another, I feel very connected to her. I also needed to include something of the musical archive that’s in me, other things that I love. So I searched my iPod for most-played tracks, not plays at home so much, but I’ll often charge a room with music to get me going creatively and, on looking, noticed I do it with similar things so there must be something significant within those sounds propelling me to move, which I thought was useful to have in our conversation. I only chose five, but I feel they bring before and now, musically, into the picture.

Autobiography is the first of many future McGregor genetics-based projects – what else is in store for your data?

WM: I’d always been blasé about having my code sequenced. I’m a person who likes to know, I’d like to know the day of my death, whereas many people wouldn’t. So I was quite relaxed about facing what was going to come of that, but at the moment you’re getting the results back, you realise the stakes – not so much for me, but for my parents particularly, whether whatever I was carrying had a direct relationship to them. It made me feel strange, in a way that wasn’t rational. It was prickly. But then, as nothing untoward came up medically, I can see it quite objectively – that’s a strange ethical place to be. The process was fascinating, but the revelation side was just this [sea of code]. Partly, as geneticists say themselves, they only have an understanding of about one per cent of it. They used to talk about the rest as ‘junk DNA’, but now they realise the junk DNA has function. It’s early as a field, genetics, but it’s burgeoning.

So you’re thinking of different stories, information and ideas in that sea of letters, beyond the medical?

WM: We’re working on this project about interrogating the data against my [choreographic] archive and using the two things to make dances on a computer. Another thing I’m [researching] is using DNA as a storage system. How might we be able to insert a dance we’ve made into the DNA of a bacteria that then replicates over time with that embedded, for example. We’re all worried about off-loading everything into the cloud, but actually could we carry all our data with us, given [DNA’s] complexity. So, I’m trying to think with the data globally, not just how can I translate it into artistic things, but how we can take it back to interesting questions around genetics.

Autobiography is at the Trinity Laban in London, 26 & 27 January. More details here.

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