Luke Jennings on Wayne McGregor’s Autobiography at Sadler’s Wells
Wayne McGregor turns his life story into dance in a mesmerising, inimitable show based upon his own genetic code
Company Wayne McGregor: Autobiography Sadler’s Wells, London EC1
On Wednesday night there was a “suspect package” alert at the Angel tube station in Islington, and the police carried out a controlled explosion. The knock-on effect of this was that I arrived at Sadler’s Wells with minutes to spare, and when the curtain went up on the first night of Wayne McGregor’s new work,
Autobiography , I hadn’t opened, let alone read, the programme. This wasn’t necessarily a problem. Sometimes it’s good to experience dance in a way that’s unmediated by expectation.
I liked the piece a lot. The dancing, set to a score by the electronic music producer Jlin, is mesmerisingly good. Jlin’s music is multilayered and demanding, and there’s a new expressive subtlety to McGregor’s choreography. It’s less spasmodic, less reliant on hyperextension and showy partnering. By cutting back on the spectacular, McGregor makes it easier for us to appreciate the care with which he positions his dancers in time and space. A dark, cobra sway is contrasted with a starburst of balletic brisés volés. Complex duets play out, judiciously phrased, precisely framed in air and light. A frieze of dancers forms, each performer momentarily cleaving to the next, and equally ineluctably, dissolves.
The piece is divided into sections, all self- contained. These are linked stylistically but not musically. No detectable theme or narrative seems to run through them, although there are fleeting echoes. If there’s meaning, order and structure here – the things we instinctively search for as humans – it’s not apparent. But this, I discover afterwards, is very much the point. The clue is in the title.
With his 10 dancers, McGregor has taken 23 influences, artefacts or memories that have played an important part in his life and turned them into choreography. These choreographic passages, or “volumes”, reflect the 23 pairs of chromosomes that contain the human genome, and the essence of the individual human self. For each performance of
Autobiography, a new combination of volumes is randomly selected, so that no two performances can ever be alike. This shuffling and reshuffling of imaginative components reflects the multiplicity of paths and choices that we all encounter in our lives. The version of Autobiography that I watched on Wednesday evening is just one of a near-infinity of possible outcomes.
The texture of any given performance of the work thus replicates, to a degree, the texture of life itself, in which impressions of order and meaning are at moments detectable but, as the Bible has it, “through a glass, darkly”. The piece raises questions about form and formlessness in artists’ representation of life. As a fiction writer, I sometimes walk through London in the vague hope that the streets will propose narratives, but because I’m not James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, I’m defeated every time by the disordered nature of real, as opposed to imaginary, life. All you get is monotone skies, people coming and going, and the wind in the trees.
By rendering his experiences opaque through the shared choreographic process, and bringing his randomising algorithms to bear, McGregor is creating something with the recognisable, if slippery, texture of lived time. Would Autobiography have taken the form it did if McGregor had not read Mrs Dalloway and The
Waves in preparation for Woolf Works ? Maybe, maybe not. What is most engaging about the piece is not the dancing per se, nor Jlin’s score, nor the coolly scissoring beams of Lucy Carter’s lighting, although all of these are extraordinary. It’s the resonance of the questions that it asks. This is dance as philosophical process, which incidentally, and elegantly, calls into question the function of the critic. What I saw will never be repeated. What you see will never have been seen before. I can only suggest that you access the version of your life in which you travel safely, encounter no suspect packages, and arrive at the theatre on time.
‘Dance as philosophical process’: Company Wayne McGregor’s Autobiography.