Choreographer Wayne McGregor on Dance and Neuroscience

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Ahead of Atomos coming to Oxford next month we spoke to Wayne McGregor, the choreographer behind it. Though just 44, McGregor has had an impressive career so far. He is not only resident choreographer for the Royal Ballet but has also been a Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge, has done a TED talk, and has worked with bands including the White Stripes and Radiohead. He was also kind enough to speak to the OxStu about his career path, and the pieces he is currently choreographing.

It is unusual to actually make it as a successful choreographer – McGregor says that he never intended to become one. He says he’d “always had a rich imaginative landscape”, starting in amateur dramatics, theatre and dancing in shows where he “got interested in what the body can express without words” over time. McGregor studied drama and dance at the University of Leeds and says that choreography found him there: “In creativity you don’t necessarily know what kind of artist you are going to be but you just look for the best medium that you can communicate in.”  He is clearly talented at communicating through dance, as he landed the job of choreographer in residence at The Place, London at the age of just 22.

Traditionally, choreographers like McGregor come from a background in dance, but he does not think this is necessary. For him, the most important thing is to have a passion for bodies and what they can express. Of course, practice is also vital but he says that some of his favourite choreographers didn’t start off in a career in dance. Of his own company Random Dance, McGregor notes that its dancers come from all over the world. It’s important that their different training impacts the way they dance and the ways they interpret his choreography. He says he looks for dancers who have “a curious head, a diversity of physical histories and a strong core technique.”

Atomos, one of  his pieces, is touring to Oxford in March, so we talked about the process of creating. McGregor has a profound interest in neuroscience so when choreographing he also explores scientific concepts. With Atomos he says he was exploring what happens when ideas move around a group: what gets left, lost and carried forward. Whilst he stresses that his work is not about the science, he says it does help him in the creative process and that it adds another drive in his choreographic process.

McGregor says he’s also very interested in the ways that dancers interpret the ideas that he gives them looking on choreography as a “co-authorial process”: “Their bodies are affecting the way I’m making decisions, it is very exciting because we start to understand things about the possibilities of movement that you never could have done on your own.” Whilst he works on the composition of the pieces alone, the choreography is something that he creates together with his dancers. As a result it’s important that his dancers are vocal and have opinions, because he thinks it adds to – and improves – his works. As he showed in his TED talk, for him, choreography is about thinking with the body.

Outside of the theatre, McGregor has an impressive list of projects he’s worked on. He recently worked on the new Tarzan franchise that is coming out in 2016 and was the Movement Director for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. “It’s all about bodies,” he says: “it’s the same, it’s just in a different context.” It seems his skill set can be applied to a whole range of places, but he explains that working on a set and helping to realise a director’s vision is quite different. When he’s working to someone else’s brief he says it “challenges him to work in a more rigorous way on a particular idea”. The directors might make him re-jig pieces numerous times until he’s created what they’re looking for.

At the moment McGregor is developing Woolf Works for the Royal Ballet. This will be a full-length piece based around the writings of Virginia Woolf. Woolf’s narrative structure is famously difficult to follow as she tried to emulate a stream of consciousness in her novels – according to McGregor she “tried to write like dancing, rather than like literature.” Just as Woolf challenged the hierarchies of narrative structure, Wayne is hoping he’ll be able to do the same thing in the Opera House: “It’s going to be a stream of consciousness ballet, just like she writes, drawing on those incredible images and words.” McGregor is the last piece in the puzzle for this production; the music and design have already take two years to perfect and now he has just fifteen weeks to come up with the steps. Rendering Woolf’s prose in dance is no mean feat and I’m certainly looking forward to seeing what he comes up with.

For those of you interested in working on similar projects Wayne told me that his dramaturg for Woolf Works, Uzma Hameed, came from a very academic background having studied Modern Languages at Cambridge. As a dramaturg she comes from a very literary point of view. She explores the images in Woolf’s writings with Wayne and discusses how to put things together in a more ‘woolfian’ way.

If you know anything about dance you’d probably have already heard of this choreographer but who knew that dance could be such an intellectual process. I for one am certainly looking forward to seeing what he does next- in the lab or on stage.

Atomos is on at the Oxford Playhouse  3rd-4th March. Wayne McGregor is giving a talk at St. Hilda’s on 10th March.

PHOTO/Nick Mead

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