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Autobiography, Company Wayne McGregor. Photo: Andrej Uspenski

“An autobiography doesn’t have to be nostalgic or commemorative”

6 August 2018 | Emily May

Choreographer Wayne McGregor is renowned for his collaborations with science and ground breaking technology, and his latest work is no exception. Autobiography, which will will be shown at the Edinburgh International Festival this month, is a dance interpretation of McGregor’s DNA, and the first in the line of dance works exploring human genetics, and collaborations between McGregor and scientists at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute.

One might think it’s a shame that McGregor’s artistic projection of himself isn’t more personal, but as the company’s Dramaturg Uzma Hadedd states “an autobiography doesn’t have to be nostalgic or commemorative.” However, if you dig a little deeper, you will find that there are in fact some links to McGregor’s personal past that have influenced the choreographic process. In the programme, you will see a double page like a scrapbook, showcasing an old primary school photograph, McGregor’s childhood bedroom, sketches from notebooks and texts that have inspired him such as Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters by Matt Ridley. All these items have apparently informed the creation of a library of 23 volumes of movement material (the number reflecting the 23 pairs of chromosomes that contain the human genome). The order in which the volumes are performed in the piece (which changes every night, referencing legendary dance pioneer Merce Cunningham’s chance principles) is determined by algorithm based on McGregor’s genetic code, which was sequenced as part of The Genetics Clinic of the Future research study in 2017.

Image Credit: Autobiography, Company Wayne McGregor. Photo: Andrej Uspenski
 
Are you confused? We were confused. And seeing the piece doesn’t really help gain much clarity either. Whilst it’s thrilling that McGregor works so tirelessly to tie dance to academic principles, and improve the reputation of an artform that is often erroneously dismissed by many in comparison to STEM subjects (think about recent discussions about the value of arts education at GCSE and A Level), it is a shame that his in-depth research is hardly visible in the movement on stage. Granted, there’s a screen that tells you titles of each of the sections performed, but it’s so high up and removed from the action (much like the original inspirations of the piece) that you forget to even pay it any attention. 
 
In the end, pontifications around the human genome are sacrificed in favour of high kicks and intriguing bodily contortions, and it’s hard for anyone who’s seen McGregor’s pieces before to be under any allusion that the language has solely derived from his latest theme - especially when so much of it is recognisable from his previous work. With this in mind, it would have been more fitting to say that this piece is an “Autobiography” in the sense that it reflects McGregor’s choreographic style and oeuvre (even down to the semi-nude and underwear-esque costumes for which his is renowned), which, one cannot dispute is extremely aesthetically arresting.  

Image Credit: Autobiography, Company Wayne McGregor. Photo: Richard Davies
 
Performed by an exceptional cast of dancers, Autobiography is undeniably a visual spectacle. Performers display breathtaking intricacy of movement, bending their limbs into impossible shapes, and piercing through the space with clarity and power. Sections when the whole cast is on stage create a dizzying melange of movement, and when everyone is performing different sequences at once, one can only compare the frenetic energy to what the inner cogs of McGregor’s rapid and questioning mind must be like when researching new innovative ideas. Sections fewer in performers are by no means diminished in terms of energy, with a duet performed by Jessica Wright and Fukiko Takase to intense electronica being a standout moment of the night. Performing with a calm confidence, the performers never lose control, however tempting it may be to let rip to the rebellious soundtrack. You may detect authentic smiles as they catch each other’s eyes, creating a palpable energy and connection between them onstage.

Image Credit: Autobiography, Company Wayne McGregor. Photo: Andrej Uspenski
 
The dancers’ performances are also closely influenced by their surroundings, as they morph their way in between a grid of metal, triangular pyramids that are raised and lowered throughout the show. There is also carefully considered lighting design by Lucy Carter, which ranges from intense and sudden blackouts to rotating vertical lights projected out onto the audience. Sometimes the intricacy of the lights can prohibit you view of the dancers, however it is worth it to give you this diverse experience that places equal value on all elements of theatrical creation, creating a true Gesamtkunstwerk.
 
Autobiography will run from 11 – 13 August at Festival Theatre, 13-29 Nicolson Street, Edinburgh, EH8 9FT as part of the Edinburgh International Festival.
 

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