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Juilliard Dance

Published: October 30, 2013
Category: review

Is Wayne McGregor for Real?

By Rachel Straus

LONDON–When a dance work is purported to derive from a series of digital images, is the dancing qualitatively different? The short answer is no. But thinking about this question was the most interesting part of watching Wayne McGregor’s Atomos, which had its world premiere (Oct. 9-12) at London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre.

Created by Nick Rothwell

Digital interface for Atomos created by Nick Rothwell and Marc Downie

Made for Wayne McGregor Random Dance, a troupe the choreographer launched when he was 22 in 1992, Atomos originated from pixilated images created on a flat screen. The images were themselves derived from digital interpretations of frames from a science-fiction film that McGregor declines to name. In all likelihood it is The Matrix, whose groundbreaking technical effects made Keanu Reeve’s body resemble a rubber band flexing at the speed of light. Similarly, McGregor’s dancing is celebrated for its Gumby-like, speedy qualities.

Atomos was developed through its ten brave performers’ improvising during rehearsal in response to those shape-shifting images.

McGregor’s tech-first choreographic approach makes him a leader in the emerging field of digital dance or dance technology. Since 2006, he has been the resident choreographer of The Royal Ballet, following the creation of Chroma (2006) in which dancers emerged from a luminescent white box, the ne plus ultra of haute abstract set design. Like many contemporary European choreographers, McGregor gives the public access to the inner workings of his process. A recent exhibit at London’s Wellcome Collection documented his decade-long collaboration with experimental psychologists and neuroscientists. McGregor’s process, he says, aims to emphasize the interconnections between brain and body.

Atomos (seen Oct. 11) begins with the dancers slowly circling in a murky pool of light, like particles growing in a Petri dish viewed under a microscope. One dancer in a matching sports bra and swim shorts climbs atop the others. She reveals her full figure above the tangle of limbs below her. Material matter is becoming human. The costumes, spandex slices of maroon and green, come from Studio XO, a company that refers to clothing as “wearable applications.”

The electro-acoustic recorded score, created by Adam Wiltzie and Dustin O’Halloran, and sententiously titled A Winged Victory for the Sullen (2007), initially produces one long minor chord faintly reminiscent of an organ. In seven electro-acoustic sections, McGregor constructs abstract duets, trios, male and female group dances, and pas de dix (five couples). The ballet’s tone is cool, occasionally dangerous, and intense. The lighting by Lucy Carter alternates between operating room bright (in hues of purple and red) and a portentous gloom. Clearly this is not a ballet about pastoral villagers celebrating the harvest.

Set to largely pulse-less music, Atomos lacks the structural element that most choreographers find important, especially those working in an abstract vein. And unlike Merce Cunningham, who didn’t choreograph to music, but who developed dance pulses and rhythms largely through his performers’ footwork, McGregor seems in Atomos to be uninterested in the whole choreo-musical relationship. Instead, his dancers push their bodies to maximum speeds and shapes. The men partner the women as though they are pole-vaulting them to a higher plain. All their upper bodies marvelously whip and whirl, like rivulets of hot lava spurting and running down a volcano’s side. But here’s the thing: Below the waist, McGregor’s choreography devolves to the codified ballet vocabulary (though the women aren’t on pointe). In Atomos, he uses traditional traveling ballet steps-the chasse, saute, soutenu-that, in the 17th century, were created to respond to rhythm. In Atomos, the same steps look like mere ways to get the dancers across the stage.

Jessica Wright, James Pett and Michael John Harper in Atomos

Jessica Wright, James Pett and Michael John Harper in Atomos

McGregor has assembled an excellent team of dancers. Catarina Carvalho, Michael-John Harper, and Anna Nowak wear the choreography like a second skin. Harper gracefully perambulates in a solo by leading with every part of his body, as though his feet were just one of the options. Carvalho sings her dancing phrases. Nowak makes McGregor’s seizure-like style (neo-classicism meets full body spasm) look lush, and even at times sexy. Toward the middle of the ballet, flat TV screens descend from the proscenium arch and the audience puts on 3-D glasses. What did we see? Big red atoms! Aha–Atomos!

Then the TV screens produce slow-motion images of the dancers’ spiraling torsos and volcanoes erupting. Later, Carter’s vibrant lighting carves the floor and backdrop into a cube within cubes, as if attempting to give Atomos sorely needed (atomic) structure.

As for titling his work Atomos, McGregor might take a look at its cultural etymology. My erudite companion kept thinking during the ballet of French sociologist Gustave Le Bon (1841-1931), who described the functioning of atoms as a metaphor for human behavior. Le Bon argued that human interactions are based on mechanical chain reactions (as opposed to social or psychological responses). This anti-humanist position would not be McGregor’s, but the choreographer’s insistence on privileging technology, and employing it as a means of expanding bodily intelligence, brings up some uncomfortable historical precedents. Body science has not always served democracy. It has alternatively been a weapon of discipline, conformism, and exacting human violence. Which begs the question of whether it even belongs on this kind of aesthetic pedestal.


The Guardian’s Judith Mackrell produced a video segment on the making of Atomos:

Atomos is coming to New Jersey’s Peak Performance Series in March 2014.


Copyright © 2013, Musical America





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