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

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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.

Pho­to­graph by Richard Davies

‘Dance as philo­soph­i­cal process’: Com­pany Wayne McGre­gor’s Au­to­bi­og­ra­phy.

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