Autobiography

Concept, direction and choreography by Wayne McGregor, music by Jlin
Company Wayne McGregor
Sadler's Wells Theatre

Autobiography Credit: Andrej Uspenski
Autobiography Credit: Richard Davies
Autobiography Credit: Richard Davies
Autobiography Credit: Ben Cullen Williams
Autobiography Credit: Richard Davies

Wayne McGregor doesn’t see autobiography as narrative, as chronological life story, but as an amalgam of ideas and experience. “Your life, at any given moment,” he says, “is fractured, multiplicitous, felt. It’s the sum of your impressions and experience, what you are reading or thinking about, who you are with.” Add to that view his intellectual and scientific interests and the result is a presentation that could not be more personal and that defies easy interpretation.

In 2017, as part of a Genetic Clinics of the Future research study, using the latest techniques McGregor’s entire genome was sequenced and McGregor began a collaborative project with Wellcome Trust scientists to explore dance and genetics of which this work was the first outcome.

I consists of 23 sections (McGregor calls them volumes) that make up his “life library” to match the 23 pairs of chromosomes that make up the human genome and at every performance these are presented in a different way, their sequence determined by an algorithm devised by Nick Rothwell based on McGregor’s genetic code, with only the opening and closing sections fixed in their places.

The choreography was developed in collaboration with the dancers and Jlin’s music, the set design and projections of Ben Cullen Williams, Lucy Carter’s lighting and Aitor Throup’s costumes are all an integral part of the creation.

It is danced against blackness that is heavily misted, sometimes a cloudscape, while above a grid of inverted tetrahedrons and rows of strip lights form a heavens that can be variously lowered. Beams of light cut through the clouds as thin layers of illumination and sometimes dazzle the audience; sudden darkness adds punctuation.

The industrial percussion of Jlin’s music (she once worked in a steel mill) drives things. Those who know tell me it’s a genre called footwork from Chicago. At times it feeds in other composers, sometimes strings and vocals and even part of a Corelli concerto.

Each section of the random sequence is numbered and named, perhaps to guide how to read them (is this dramaturge Uzma Hameed’s contribution?) but it is easy to miss the projected titling above the proscenium and they don’t always seem particularly relevant and you don’t need them to respond to the abstract patterns, the interactions and the emotion that the dancers give to the choreography.

The opening number (1 Avatar) presents Jacob O’Connell in a solo of stretching and twisting to tinkling, jangling and throbbing strings that seems to be a man testing out his body to discover what it can do. It was followed on this occasion by 7 Traces, a modern take on baroque elegance and extended courtesies to the Corelli. Then 13 Not I, 17 World (which took things very slowly), 10 Nature, which was lively and joyful, 15 Instinct, with spinning and leaping, 22 Remember, with some sitting still while others dance, even they sometimes holding frozen moments, 12 Three Scenes, opening with bird song as dancers make a line of chairs, later the sound of water.

Next came 8 Nurture, though the women dancing seemed in contest rather than nurturing, 19 Aging, with a hint of added effort and some support, 14 Lucent, in blue light, two guys rolling together in floor work, the sound turning to heavy breathing, 6 Sleep with the hanging grid moving down like a trap as dancers dive beneath it: a sleep that is fevered with nightmares, 4 Knowing, then finally 23 Choosing in which light pierces the audience and each dancer turns to face them before proudly walking off.

There’s one omitted in that list, I missed its naming, but maybe the point is that it doesn’t matter, that we spend to much effort trying to decipher life’s meaning when we should just live it. And these dances bring so much life on stage. The dance seems a succession of new moves invented. Apart from any immediate repetition, we never seem to see the same thing twice as bodies interact, someone held in one position moving miraculously to be held in different one, turning and twisting in so many different ways, occasionally a moment remembered from another work—I could swear I caught a fragment of Nijinsky’s Fawn (but perhaps that was something from my own autobiography).

These ten dancers are eminently watchable. Louis McMiller and Po-Lin Tung caught my eye spinning and turning, Jessica Wright and Rebecca Bassett-Graham in their pairing but though this is very much an ensemble work everyone in the company gets a moment in the spotlight: Jordan James Bridge, Travis Clausen-Knight, Daniela Neugebauer, James Pett and Fukiko Takase as well as those already mentioned.

Together they offer 80 minutes of thrilling dance offered with apparent ease though the sheer effort of its energy is belied by the increasing shine on their hard worked torsos. They earn their enthusiastic reception.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton