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Company Wayne McGregor – Autobiography | Review

Autobiography Company Wayne McGregor - Andrej Uspenski
Autobiography Company Wayne McGregor – Andrej Uspenski

What you need to know before you read about this contemporary dance work, Autobiography, choreographed by the acclaimed choreographer Wayne McGregor is that the performance you watch will be unique, it shall never be repeated again. It will not be the same as the one I am writing about.

Autobiography sets out to examine all the possible futures available in a life, distilled by reality to just the one we live. It’s this which is explored in this innovative and audacious show by Wayne McGregor, and his company of ten dancers.

Together they have worked to create choreography from old writings, memories, pieces of art and music of importance to McGregor. Influences include a poem about Icarus, a family history of twins, Beckett and Merce Cunningham who, like McGregor here, was highly engaged by the, What If, element of chance in life. From this choreographic work 23 volumes, chapters, relating to a life have been extracted, driven by a process of replication, variation and mutation. 23 volumes have been chosen so as reflect the 23 pairs of chromosomes which contain the human genome. This takes us to a genetic story.

Between a fixed opening and a fixed end, the ‘volumes’ performed each evening are randomly chosen by a computer using an algorithm based on McGregor’s genetic code. There is no human mind putting together the narrative you might find in what you are shown.

Can a human narrative referring to the experiences and emotions found in human life be discovered using artificial intelligence in this way? That’s a question this work poses. The opening describes an individual emerging, diffident and unknowing from the primordial mists of infinite time into what will be their time. It is also the beginning of what will be their self. It’s a powerful, effective opening.

Through the selected volumes performed we watch that particular self, grow until there is a shift, from the narrative of the development of that self to the narrative of the life it lives. It’s a subtle but distinct change that happened on opening night about one-third of the way through. An emotional connection between the observer and this randomly created self, developing from dance sequences made by humans but selected by a computer. That’s a very interesting thing. You don’t know what you will find.

The volumes selected by the computer on opening night had titles such as; Instinct, Nature, Knowing, Ageing, Disequibrilising, Lucient, Sleep, Nurture and Choosing. There are surprises within those segments, reaching beyond the cliched to recognisable, agonising truth.

Sometimes there can be too much repetition in the volumes the computer selects. This was a problem on opening night, not so much for the choreography, but of the music. Too much jagged electro music using screams as if in anguish were occurring. Perhaps, yes, a metaphor for the dissonance of some lives but uncomfortable for an audience confined to its seats.

In between, however, there were dance works of sublime power and poignancy. Not to be missed. The section dealing with death was moving indeed, the soundtrack by Jlin a perfect and clever accompaniment representing absence, a missing. Ageing too was extraordinary, the inexorable and common nature of that was beautifully described, as opposed to the loneliness of other parts of life. Its climax was visually stunning.

The choreography tends to the modern contemporary balletic, half pirouettes, backs bending, high raised legs, lowered bodies. There are echoes from South East Asia, other parts of the world not Britain. Trios of dancers are used to subvert the equanimity of duets, duets often describe connections between human beings rather than being limited to stereotypical romances, mostly danced by the same genders together which is such a relief from gendered stereotypes. There’s a lovely duet between two male dancers representing synchronicity and empathy.

The algorithm in charge of the sequences danced also decides which dancer will dance which parts. While all the dancers are excellent, Po-Lin Tung is an exceptional dancer even in this company, excelling in watchable grace and charisma.

On stage, the dancers are often working through effects of mist to some degree or another and always below the repetitive diamond angled helix’s and bright light sequences arranged and rearranged to represent DNA in all it’s infinite variety. It’s a highly effective set design by Ben Cullen Williams.

The lighting designed by Lucy Carter is stunning and a vital component in the success of the show. The fixed closing volume is sensational as shifting analogies are created between the angles that make our DNA and the iconic shape of the ancient pyramids. It’s a stunning climax to a show in which there are limits to the human control being exercised. Yes, there’s the potential for disorder here but there’s also the excitement and discovery that comes from risk and fearlessness as well as a place for one’s imagination to be engaged between the framework of the form that is the immense talent of the creative, questing Wayne McGregor and his talented company of dancers.

4 stars

Review by Marian Kennedy

Running time: About 80 minutes, no interval.

In this striking exploration of memory, choreographer and director Wayne McGregor’s trademark sleek, athletic style combines with live accompaniment from electronic music innovator Jlin.

With his ten dancers, McGregor takes inspiration from his own genetic makeup and the recollections that have played an important part in his life to explore the body as a living archive.

Joined by designer Ben Cullen Williams, lighting designer Lucy Carter, artist Aitor Throup and dramaturg Uzma Hameed, the Sadler’s Wells Associate Artist presents a series of deeply personal dance portraits algorithmically assembled and performed in a unique sequence at every show.

Company Wayne McGregor is a Resident Company of Sadler’s Wells

Company Wayne McGregor — Autobiography
26 – 28 Jul 2018
Sadler’s Wells
Rosebery Avenue, London, EC1R


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