Scientific, Fantastic Dance

Let’s start with some random data. He’s been fascinated by computers since the age of seven, he has a degree in semiotics, and he’s not ruffled in the least if someone wants to discuss cognitive psychology with him. As a small boy he imitated John Travolta from Saturday Night Fever. He produced a ballroom scene for one of the Harry Potter films. Nearly fifty million people have seen the video clip he choreographed for Radiohead. Yes, we’re still talking about the same man: the technical daredevil of contemporary dance, Wayne McGregor, came to Budapest with the choreography he premiered last autumn.

Wayne McGregor is one of the outstanding artists in the international dance scene whose important works have been shown in Hungary shortly after the premiere. The series continues: for the fifth time the Trafó hosts the choreographer’s own company, formerly the Random Dance Company, now Company Wayne McGregor, with a work of out-and-out autobiographical inspiration. Don’t anybody think of misty-eyed, winsome nostalgia: in his Autobiography McGregor gives a synthesis of everything that he knows, thinks, and feels about dance and humankind. And of what he has discovered, this time through his own genome.

(c) Andrej Uspenski

Curious and indefatigable, perhaps these two words describe McGregor’s character most succinctly. He was born in 1970 in Stockport near Manchester, and studied dance in Leeds and New York. At the age of 22 he founded his company, which still operates today. By the second half of the 1990s he was a sought-after choreographer, and perhaps more importantly, his style is unmistakeable, yet always causes surprise. Perhaps style is not the right word: rather, an ars poetica and a special relationship to the reality beyond the stage, because from the very start McGregor has been radical and intrepid in his use of new technologies. For him, art and science are not mutually exclusive, but interdependent forms of communication that reinforce one another. As he said in an interview: “I belong to a generation that already had a computer at home, and I never felt that technical devices were some kind of extra added value in my life or my works. New technologies are an integral part of my life, and thus of my choreographies.” Acknowledging no boundaries between genres, media and devices, McGregor has been involved with a whole series of exciting interdisciplinary projects.

His project of a few years back would not have been out of place in a sci-fi movie, when he made a choreography with a research team from the University of San Diego in a laboratory. During the project cognitive scientists archived every stage of the creative process: with images, sounds, text, and calculations they described and analysed how an idea is born, how it is transformed during rehearsals, and even how it escapes from the final version.

What we have described so far is an artist, contemporary through-and-through, who passionately wants to understand our world, which is determined by the continuous development of technology. But the essence of McGregor’s career is unpredictability. Since 2006 he has been the first resident choreographer of perhaps the best known ballet company in the world, the London Royal Ballet, to come from the contemporary dance scene. “Everybody carries their own physical history, so it doesn’t matter if you’ve trained in hip-hop or body-popping or classical ballet. It’s all the same, really.”

The question arises how McGregor’s approach can be reconciled with the values of a company with such a great tradition, like the Royal Ballet. In an interview with the BBC the choreographer recalled that every company is composed of individuals, and he asked for (and got) free reign to experiment. For him, choreography is interaction: he is constantly learning from the dancers who have amazing technical skill, and working with them is a challenge even for him. “If you go from a point of view where there are no rules, the audience shouldn’t necessarily know what to expect, and that’s a really healthy thing.”

The director’s genes

Epigenetics, or beyond and above genetics. This dynamically developing branch of research examines how the environmental factors impinging on parents are expressed in their offspring without the DNA sequence being changed. Imagine that a human life is a feature-length film. The cells are the actors, the DNA is the screenplay: it contains instructions for the actors how to play their characters. The DNA sequence is the words in the screenplay, and combinations of these, or the genes, determine key events. If genetics is like screenplay writing, then epigenetics is analogous to directing. After reading the screenplay the director decides to omit or reinforce certain scenes, to curtail or to extend certain dialogues. Back to reality: everything about what we eat, where we live, how much we sleep, what sport we do, and thousands of other processes, all has an effect on the expression of genes, as a result of which some genes are “switched on” and other “go to sleep”. Genes “remember”: important events in the lives of parents or grandparents, war, starvation, radical changes in lifestyle, can show up even several generations later. Epigenetics examines this process and its consequences.

The discovery of new terrain is a life-long mission for McGregor. His new piece, Autobiography, is unique in its genre, because he used his own DNA as the starting point. Friends initially warned him off: who would want to know, for instance, if they had a propensity for Alzheimer’s disease? The final result showed nothing alarming, but even the first analysis provided him with 11 thousand pages of data. Following this the “landscape” of the genome took shape: rhythmic motifs, colours, and stories emerged from it.

On the basis of his mapped-out genome, McGregor made for his ten dancers 23 studies, one for each pair of chromosomes, each a few minutes long. After spending twenty-five years in dance world, he was curious about what traces this time had left in his genetic code. “Body is a living archive. Not as a nostalgia-fest but as an idea of speculative future. Each cell carries in it the whole blueprint of your life, basically.” In short: Using his own genome, McGregor tells the story of his past, and predicts possible events in the future.

The special feature of this evening of dance is that no two performances are identical, because apart from the fixed opening and closing scenes, an algorithm determines the order of the scenes that evening, and who participates in which one. In theory there are 24,000 permutations: “It’s a struggle for the dancers, not knowing what they’re doing [very far] in advance, but then making meaning from it”, says McGregor. And if we are to trust his intuition, things aren’t going to stop there. In McGregor’s view: “Genetics and AI – it’s a massive field that’s going to explode over the next five years.”

Author: Tamás Jászay

This article first appeared in BSF Magazine, published by Budapest Spring Festival. To view the magazine in full, please click here.