The Politics of Movement
As one of the world’s most accomplished choreographers, Wayne McGregor's trajectory into the world of dance has been unlike any other. A genre bender with no professional ballet training, he has been forging a new path between pop culture and the classical structures of dance since forming his own company Random Dance in 1992.
From his ten years as Resident Choreographer at the Royal Ballet to his role as Movement Director for Harry Potter, it becomes apparent that Wayne is most happy when weaving movement through different mediums. Whether it be on stage, in music videos or cinema, this is about pushing the art of dance forward, not backward. His accolades are plentiful and his talent can surely be attested by the overwhelming list of collaborators who have chosen to work with him. We sat down with Wayne at his recently opened and dazzling new space, Studio Wayne McGregor in East London where it becomes apparent after spending time with him that for Wayne dance it is not just about a clear set of movements, but exploring this expressive and universal language that none of us realise we all speak.
Art displayed in background: Light Work xxv; 2017 by Haroon Mirza at Studio Wayne McGregor on loan from Lisson Gallery
What time do you get up in the morning?
Quite early, 6-ish. I like that quiet time in the morning to just walk with the dogs and I don’t take my phone with me. It’s an amazing thing to watch those animals run at such a speed.
So you get up quite early. You’re a lot more proactive than other people. Where does that come from?
I think I’ve always been like that. I was a very active child. I also don’t like routine; I’m not good with doing the same thing every day.
Have you ever worked in an office?
No. I’ve always done my own thing, so I’ve been lucky with that, I started Random Dance when I was 21. The closest to that was a Saturday job I had in Debenhams, which was horrendous. I was on carpets would you believe. Everyday I had to count the carpets, take each one of the pile and then put them back again. Then you would sit there all day and no one would buy a carpet, you didn’t even see anyone all day. At the end of the day, you had to count them again, the same thing… completely mindless. I think being mindful in your days is really important.
"I also don't drink. It’s part of being in what I call this state of preparedness."
Wayne McGregor on his work ethic
It’s interesting that you say you aren’t good with rituals, because you seem pretty systematic in the way that you approach your work, it’s very clean and structured.
I am, and that’s a lifestyle I think. I’m vegan for example, which is part of it. I also don’t drink. It’s part of being in what I call this state of preparedness.
What does that mean, a state of preparedness?
I think you want to be responding in real time, and it’s really hard to be present like that and responding at the same time. For me, if I get the chance to do a collaboration and very quickly come up with an idea I can respond in real time and do something really interesting, but what I’m not so keen on is where everything has already been fixed and you’re just fitting into it. I like the conversational approach to living.
You’re really interested in people aren’t you?
I think in order to collaborate with somebody you have to be able to spend time with them, and you can’t spend time virtually, just emailing and chatting like that. I think all the most insightful things that we’ve done are at times where we’ve not even been talking about the project.
Do people ever say no to you? You collaborate with so many different people.
I don’t want to jinx it. It’s not a straightforward ask – when I approach someone I’m just asking if I can come and talk with them about a few ideas, and some of those emerge into a production or into a film.
I guess what makes you different is your focus on people in dance, whereas traditionally when you look at classical ballet, the focus is very much on the form.
That’s true, and you see that in some of the very established ballet cultures. They have a very routine-based life and dancers need that because they need to prepare their bodies for an hour and a half in the morning. Then they go into rehearsals and then performances at night, it’s a very long way of thinking about using your energy. Because the system has been built around that kind of practice, they have become quite inflexible. I’m not so interested in that, I’m more interested in how you can break that down.
Art displayed in background: Light Work xxv; 2017 by Haroon Mirza at Studio Wayne McGregor on loan from Lisson Gallery
Do you think that maybe even the ‘breaking it down’ is some sort of structure and system for you?
Yeah there are always systems. You have to have strategies to work. I guess what you are saying is that randomness is a system, which of course it is. Maybe diversity of thinking is a good way to look at it. What I want is people around me who are not saying the same thing every day, whatever discipline or domain that is.
When you are putting on a production of such magnitude and scope, do you ever have a moment of terror that it won’t work?
I can honestly say that I’m not a worrier. Yeah you can have moments where you think that everything is going horribly wrong, but in a way the business of making dance for me is about failing. If I think I’ve got nothing to go from after I’ve failed, what would be the point the next time?
At the moment I’ve not been terrified about having enough ideas, maybe the discipline of refining ideas is harder.
How do you deal with a bad review?
What I’ve learned over 25 years of working is that a review is so much more about a filter of what people are watching than what actually exists. One of the things I try to do with young choreographers when I’m working with them is to give them the discipline of reading the reviews. I think there is this general idea of just not reading them.
Have there ever been times where you don’t know how to respond to a project because of total spontaneity?
Maybe, sometimes that’s when you get the butterflies and the fear factor, at these moments of great intensity and you just have to make a decision. But at the end of the day I guess it’s just this series of decision trees – you’re making this decision often at the expense of another. But you can always go back right?
When was the last time you went to a club to just have a dance?
Really a long time ago, probably about 10 years now. I used to do it a lot.
Studio Wayne McGregor, designed by We Not I: Images by Gilbert McCarragher
What kind of music or clubs?
90s rave, that whole Belgian rave scene. I used to do a lot of performances in clubs. One of the things I love about that kind of dancing is when you dance with someone. Often when you see someone at a rave, they’re just in their own world, I like it when there’s a dialogue and you see it. I was working with Thom Yorke who is an amazing physical performer when you see him on stage. One of the things he said that really struck me was that he looks out at the audience and kind of hijacks the physicality of someone that he sees and does something with it. On a deeper level, it’s a way of connecting I think.
Do you ever think about the state of the world right now, with so much political disruption and disillusionment? Are you able to channel that?
I think human beings always need some form of disruption and I think part of living is living in a world with these extremes. But what is a disruption to a person? Sometimes a personal, emotional turmoil can be more relevant and meaningful than the Korea situation. Where does it hit you? I watch the news and I read, so it can’t be helped that these things subsume themselves in the piece, even though it’s not about Korea or whatever it might be.
"The business of making dance for me is about failing."
On Wayne's fear of failure
Some people would see dance as arbitrary but movement can be very political.
I think it’s not just about movement, it’s about what we all share, which is biological matter. So when someone is sitting watching the piece, they’re not just watching the dance, they are watching another human being who shares the same traits. It’s an amazing kind of boundary object, to be a mirror in some ways and I think that’s one of the powers of dance. Dance is very direct, because you feel it; it’s a kinaesthetic experience, not just an intellectual experience.
There is a lot of talk about echo chambers at the moment, and I like the idea that dance is almost an echo chamber of the body. Neuroscientist Lawrence Parsons has done a lot of work around dancers, and to paraphrase him, he said ‘unlike music, dance has a strong capacity for representation and imitation, which suggests that dance may have further served as an early form of language.’
I talk about having a physical language when I am working, and a lot of the cognitive neuroscientists that I’ve worked with would say it is a language. I think the way in which we move is very personal. I’m making this piece at the moment called Autobiography, and I’ve been working with scientists from Cambridge and Harvard on sequencing my human genome and using that data to make stuff, and then taking an archive of old pieces and old images to build speculative futures with decisions that have been made in the past by using machine learning. So these are all aspects of kinaesthetic intelligence that we all have but we use individually and personally. You might ride horses and I might fence so already our physical knowledge is quite diverse.
I wanted to talk to you about the reputation that dance is very siloed as a community. I feel that dance has kind of isolated itself from the wider cultural community. I think it sees itself as a bourgeois movement almost, so people just think they won’t really get it.
Partly I think it’s because when people think about dance traditionally they think about classical ballet, those classical stories and the Opera House and the theatre. I think it’s very different now, especially with some of the social dance forms like hip hop really changing the way we think about experiencing dance. I think also there has always been a divide between someone doing it and someone watching it. One of the pleasures of dance is doing it, that’s where you get the endorphin rise.
And making dance relevant and popular is difficult, recent studies show that what makes something popular is presenting something as familiar with an added slight novelty.
So this is basic communication theory. That makes sense to me, and what makes sense to me as well is thinking how much work do you have to do as a participant to unpick the way in which you experience the content.
How do you encourage people to spend time with it? I was at Google the other day and we were talking about what a marker of success is, or what its usefulness is? One of the things he said that I found super interesting is that usefulness is how much time you are going to spend engaged with it, no other reason.
So I think one of the problems with dance which is different to music and different to the visual arts is that you can’t actually get back to that live experience. Perhaps now with VR or AR there are some experiences that you will be able to revisit in a physiological way.
What’s your opinion on Google and these other massive tech companies? They have a lot to say on culture and where we are going.
It’s interesting being involved in some of their research arms, like the Google Culture Lab. I think you have to be part of the conversation, and there needs to be a diversity of thinkers in the conversation for it to really be valuable and rich, and to make decisions about them.
We interviewed a guy called Adam Piore, who has just written a book called The Body Builders about the ethics of bioengineering. Where do you think that is taking the body? Is there a downside you can see in the use of technology in practices such as dance? Can it enhance the capacity of the body?
All of the above. The questions that you can ask about a technology that exists for another purpose perhaps will take the body into new unchartered territory that could be interesting. If I had the whole of my genetic code in front of me, they can understand that 99% of it is the choreography of the elements, what does that really mean? What questions are we going to ask about this data? What insight can we get from asking it different questions? I guess I don’t know, but it’s interesting to ask the question.
Life (rhizome) No.16; 2013 by Tatsuo Miyajima / Life (les corps sans organes) No. 18; 2013 by Tatsuo Miyajima
Art displayed at Studio Wayne McGregor on loan from Lisson Gallery
In a more futuristic sense, is there anything you would like to see technology add to dance in 30/40 years from now?
I can think of so many different things. How would Hololens affect how you experience memory? There are just so many possibilities and that’s what is so exciting. There should be more people in the dance world engaging in those discussions because you need more critical mass in the thinking to develop it quicker.
What does a quiet moment look like for you? You seem so busy.
I definitely don’t try to be busy, that’s not a good thing. I think the assumption with that is that you have all these things going on and you are just trying to cope. The experience for me is that I just turn up on the day to do whatever I’m doing and just give it 100%, I don’t feel overwhelmed by it. I’ve got a massive passion for architecture. You might not think this sounds like quiet time but we just restored a Bauhaus house in Devon and I built a house in Lamu, which is in Kenya, a world heritage site with no roads, no cars so you go there and literally just swim, paddleboard, play with the dog and read.
Who is the architect that you love the most?
Obviously I love the minimalism of John Pawson. I’ve worked with John twice now on different projects. I love all those Bauhaus architects.
Recently you worked on some films like Fantastic Beasts and The Legend of Tarzan. What does that entail?
Since the 90s I’ve worked on this thing called motion capture, which is where you have the dots on your body and it captures the mass of your movement. I’ve done that for a very long time and the technology has really developed and moved on. On Fantastic Beasts I trained Ezra Miller, I did all his musicality for Credence and then we built the Obscurus with physical action. It’s about figuring out where choreography exists in the film, because it’s not just about bodies moving. I love working on projects like that because they are at the level where you can really afford the kit and all these incredible things. The kit isn’t always the most important thing but it is important to know where the kit has got to.
What would you say is the piece that you are most well known for amongst the general audience?
Well Thom Yorke and Lotus Flower got 50 million hits. What was amazing about that was seeing how many people did their own versions of it.
I actually want to do an exhibition where you curate all of those versions and show it with the original one because they are absolutely genius. Some are piss takes, some are piss takes but also learning the whole thing, which I love because they have spent time committed to doing something. There are kids doing it, old people, people doing it in a group and flashmobs…it’s brilliant and I think it shows the power of dance. So I’m super proud of that.
Personally I loved Tree of Codes, and it received a lot of praise. You worked on that with Olafur Eliasson and Jamie xx, how did that project come about? Did you start working with them 2 or 3 years before?
Long before that. We got a meeting with Olafur, who I was a fan of after seeing his work. I saw this amazing installation he did with Merce Cunningham at the Tate called The Weather Project and he’s doing lots of interesting things in different domains like architecture or the environment. I thought that he must be an intuitive theatre man because all of his installation work is very theatrical and experiential; it filters through the body. It surprised me that he was a world breakdancing champion though.
Did he do any for you?
Yeah he was amazing. He came to the studio one day and took his shoes off, and I could just see he was itching to go. There’s actually a video of him on his website breakdancing on the roof of his studio with this guy.
What do you think about these rough and complex dance forms that arise out of rough neighbourhoods, like jookin’, which came out of Memphis? They’re really expressive art forms.
That’s how I started out. I was raving, had no professional ballet training, no contemporary lessons, so I started like that. It’s a natural dance form.
Who is the dancer right now that you are most intrigued by?
There’s a young East London guy called Bonetics who’s really amazing, I’d love to do something with him. He totally moves without bones, it’s insane. We’re trying to get him on to a programme we’re doing at the National Gallery. It’s shocking but beautiful. I’m very interested in conceptual dance making, you know Boris Charmatz, Jérôme Bel, these people who are working outside of the theatrical context and making massive headway into how dance is an intellectual art form. I like a choreographer called Crystal Pite. She’s a real thinker but she thinks emotionally and so that can’t help but come out, and obviously she’s an amazing dancer.
All photos taken by Mike Massaro