In Autobiography, Wayne McGregor’s coolly cerebral choreographic thinking comes as something of a bracing challenge, especially to a wafty humanities type who spends much of their time wondering what an arabesque penché set to Beethoven might say about certain emotional states.
There’s no depiction of a Stockport childhood or misty-eyed reminiscence about the follies of youth in this autobiography. The ever-enquiring McGregor – doyen of data-inspired dance – has dispensed with all the self-mythology stuff so typical of the autobiographical genre. Instead, he went and got his whole genome mapped. I’m not really sure what this means, but maybe it’s like an impenetrable series of numbers and diagrams of cells in which a geneticist can detect certain ancestral traits, like mathematical ineptitude and weird toe joints (thanks Dad).
Anyway, McGregor and company have created 23 sections of choreography (referring to the 23 pairs of chromosomes that contain the human genome), which are selected afresh for every performance by an algorithm based on the choreographer’s genetic code. Rather than offering a fixed portion of self-fashioned narrative, McGregor’s autobiography is new in each iteration, its possible permutations and replications reflective of cellular mutability. It’s also an homage to Merce Cunningham and John Cage’s experiments with chance – rather than artistic craft – as the arbiter of choreographic form.
Does this make for good theatre? It certainly demands a kind of rigorous approach, like a professor forcing you to consider textual variants rather than squishy psychological notions of ‘character’. The dancers, costumed in minimalist shifts, shorts and pants, are undeniably impressive, all of them in possession of elite McGregorian bodies – lithe and loose-limbed – that the maestro’s boneless choreography demands. An opening solo for a male dancer has a certain undulating softness as well as simian sway and sudden ear-grazing extensions.
The score – by avant-garde electronic musician Jlin – is full of compelling aural shifts. Gurgling and mysterious soundscapes burst into bouts of dubstep to which the dancers respond with euphoric fizzing energy. There are propulsive same-sex partnerships, uneasy squirmings that turn combative and courtly poses that get oddly torqued. At 80 minutes, Autobiography contains occasional longueurs, but overall we don’t really get blinded with science (though the flat beams of bright white light that sometimes scan the auditorium bring on a squint). Amid the impassive contortions and arrangements, there’s a recognisable tenderness – in a gently ponderous duet for two men, for example, or a series of supported balances and lifts that allude to the onset of ageing. A welcome sense of soulfulness emerges from McGregor’s 23 gnomic, genomic dances.
Autobiography was performed at Sadler’s Wells. Click here for more details.