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By Wendy Perron
Bold, fierce, and fresh, the choreographer challenges dancers and audiences alike.
From left: Sofiane Sylve, Frances Chung, Koto Ishihara, Maria Kochetkova, and Elizabeth Powell of San Francisco Ballet in Borderlands, with lighting by Lucy Carter. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.
It’s the day after Wayne McGregor’s Borderlands for San Francisco Ballet premiered in January, and the second cast has just completed its run-through in the studio. The ballet, which prompted a standing ovation the night before, is fiendishly difficult. Although it’s inspired by Josef Albers’ geometric paintings, it sends the dancers into extreme twists and maneuverings where they crawl or grope or poke their way through a partner’s negative space. McGregor, 43, and ballet master Ricardo Bustamante are sitting on the floor with the dancers, giving them notes. When the choreographer asks if anyone has any questions, Dana Genshaft, who has just ripped through the strikingly strange opening duet, asks, “When are you coming back?”
Both onstage and off, dancers all over the world respond to McGregor’s wildly complex movement and his upbeat warmth. They relish the bracing challenges he poses, and he appreciates them as individual artists. In the pre-performance talk at the War Memorial Opera House, he told the audience that when he sets a work on a particular dancer, the way he or she does it “burns itself into my retina.”
McGregor’s curiosity has fueled multiple projects that bring out the creativity in others. He has given his own dancers at Wayne McGregor/Random Dance the responsibility to lead workshops, and he has encouraged corps dancers at The Royal Ballet, where he is resident choreographer, to make dances. When invited to lead the biannual Big Dance event in Trafalgar Square last July, he turned the pre-Olympics celebration into a collectively made event for almost 1,000 people. He’s choreographed for opera, theater, music videos, and film, including Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The innovative Creative Learning department of Random Dance, which is resident at Sadler’s Wells, recently extended to Kenya. McGregor’s choreography and educational initiatives have earned him many awards and honors, including a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) for his service to dance.
Since his schedule in San Francisco was as hectic as in London, I interviewed McGregor on the car ride from SFB to the airport. As he got into the back seat, he murmured that it’s always hard to say goodbye to the dancers he’s gotten attached to. —Wendy Perron
Watching your amazing dancing this morning at our photo shoot, I was wondering, How do you think of energy going through the body? It’s almost like a chain that’s linked. There’s a point of initiation that has a repercussion somewhere else in the body. The best classical dancers also have that sense of chains of action so the energy moves out through the fingertips.
Do the dancers ever say to you, Well actually that would travel differently through my body? Not really…I try to provide a problem for the body to solve, so they have to find a way. And that’s part of the pleasure of working with people who make different decisions in how they might solve it. It not only teaches me something but it gives them something. That’s why it becomes as much about them as it does about me.
Noah Long and Greta Hodgkinson of National Ballet of Canada in Chroma (2006). Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann, Courtesy NBC.
Some of the dancers just dive into your movement. How do you know which dancers are wild enough to do it? There are always surprises, so you can’t always know. When I go to a company and I don’t know the dancers, I can just tell, from what they do in their daily work. It’s something about how they fire up those feet in class. For casting, the time I love most in class is in pliés—the attitude, the approach. If they’ve got that kind of hunger in the 50,000th ballet class they’ve ever done, then it’s likely that if you give them interesting rich material, they’ll do something quite challenging with it.
Does the title Borderlands have to do with Josef Albers’ paintings? It’s partly to do with that. For me the Albers color theory always oscillates between two points of view and two facts—the fact of yellow and the fact of salmon or something—so you’re thrust into these ambiguous states. It felt to me like some kind of threshold. The border of the art form of painting and the art form of dancemaking—I wondered how that threshold would be to investigate.
In the part with the men’s arms vibrating, is that like when one color vibrates against another? Exactly like that, yeah yeah. It’s how you pop the image or force the image to do something different. The collapsing light we have there for the vibration edits out some of the facts of that picture. You distrust your eyes in a way. We put video thru the LED, almost like the TV static that gives you that sense of instability.
SFB’s Pascal Molat, Sarah Van Patten, Carlos Quenedit, and France Chung in Borderlands. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.
I also saw very saturated colors of green and purple on stage right. They’re all versions of blue. You read a different color even though it might be the same color you’ve just seen. Your eye is tricked into believing something else, and I tried to do that physically as well. I trick the eye into thinking it’s going in one physical direction and then it switches and goes somewhere else.
There are some parts of Borderlands that are incredibly sensual and sexual, more than most of the pieces I’ve seen of yours. Did you feel that? I find Albers’ work very intimate, spiritual, and that demands a certain type of physical response and sensitivity. Some of his paintings are quite dirty in a way, not quite resolved—some of the stuff we were able to see in the archive where he’s testing things out. We’re used to seeing the perfected end. At the archive [in Connecticut] we were able to see the evidence of a process; it’s much more confused. In some way it’s soiled, or the relationship is dysfunctional, using your body to be manipulative, rather than being manipulated.
I’ve heard you talk about your interest in the body “misbehaving.” Is this dirty quality related to that? Definitely. I think there’s something about extreme sensuality. When you watch dance you can’t help but see some kind of sexual dimension to it. There’s a biological relationship to those bodies that you cannot deny. It’s interesting to play on the edges of what that might look like.
Random Dance in Entity (2008). Photo by Ravi Deepres, Courtesy Random.
Wasn’t some of Borderlands in bare feet? No, I use pointe shoes and flat shoes quite promiscuously, if you like. I didn’t want to make this or that the “pointe shoe bit” so it’s very mixed up all the way through. They’re not actually in bare feet but sometimes in light-colored flat shoes. Masha [Maria Kochetkova, first cast as a lead] might do one thing in pointe shoes and the next in flat, back and forth. In a way, the pointe shoe just becomes part of the language.
You’ve pointed out that we all have filters we see things through, and you’ve worked with scientists at UC San Diego who looked at your creative process. What have you learned about your own filters? I think the fact that we have filters that make us make certain decisions is important to note. Understanding them allows you to open up a whole different sense of possibility. These things are called choreographic thinking tools, and it’s just a way of breaking down your process. I can go into the studio and not think about any of the filters and just make instinctively in the moment and see what happens. But sometimes I can work in a different way, where I can attend to something I wouldn’t normally. Say I’m working with a couple and I’m thinking of them architecturally from a visual point of view. How is it if I shift my mindset to think of them as radiating sound, and that they are like sonic instruments? How would that make me change the things that I make on them? We found a way to help dancers, as well, recognize what cognitive loop they may be working in and how might they be able to extend what their normal habits of making are.
I think that gets reinforced, when you ask the dancers, as you did today, “How would you describe this section?” That process for me is about us building a collective imagination for the work. I’m not the sort of choreographer who says, This is what it has to be. We’re inventing it together. I’m curious to see what they’re feeling or thinking when they’re watching or performing the work. Building that language gives you those anchor points that hopefully make the work more cohesive. I feel that way of pulling out the information from them gives me a richness that I wouldn’t have, but it’s shared in a group format. Some dancers, it takes a little while before they feel confident enough; it’s quite exposing. With my Random lot, you can’t shut them up, but in a ballet company it’s a different thing.
The Royal Ballet in Limen (2009). Photo by Tristram Kenton/ROH, Courtesy Royal Ballet.
Were you satisfied last night after seeing Borderlands? I think I’m never satisfied. I guess that’s why I make something else. I never sit there and think, Well done, Wayne! That’s just not my personality. I’ve had a fantastic process with the dancers; I’ve learned so much from and with them. But in terms of the work itself, I always see things that I want to do differently, so I never feel there’s an endpoint. In a way Borderlands is a representation of a series of decisions that were made at the time, and that has a beauty of its own.
What do you look for in a dancer? I look for someone who is really open-minded and who looks at me in the eye when I go into the studio on the first day. Someone who’s not intimidated to have a conversation with you, who’s prepared to work really hard, who knows something about their body and wants to experience something else in that body. I think that’s the most pleasurable dancer to have.
Random in UNDANCE (2011), inspired partly by Eadweard Muybridge. Photo by Ravi Deepres, Courtesy Random.
What’s coming up in Wayne’s world
April 30–June 17, Dyad 1929, The Australian Ballet, Sydney and Melbourne
May 2–12, Chroma, Boston Ballet
May 24–June 8, Raven Girl, world premiere, The Royal Ballet, London
May 27–28, UNDANCE, Random, Katara Village, Doha
June 1–2, FAR, Random, Macao Cultural Centre, Macao
June 22–23, UNDANCE, Random, Sadler’s Wells, London