Wayne McGregor's Highly Personal New Dance Work

by Jean Schiffman

Innovative British choreographers uses his DNA as a foundation for new 80-minute dance piece.

Innovative British choreographer Wayne McGregor has drawn deep within himself to find inspiration for his newest work. “Autobiography,” an 80-minute dance piece that has its West Coast premiere here, courtesy of San Francisco
Performances, is inspired, in part, by McGregor's genome.

The work premiered last year at Sadler’s Wells in London, where the 25-year-old Company Wayne McGregor is in residence. “Autobiography” represents the award-winning choreographer’s ongoing fascination and experimentation with the ways that science, new technology and philosophy can influence dance-making. In it, he looks at the concept of genetics from a personal and artistic vantage point.

On the phone from New York, where he was rehearsing “Rite of Spring” (for a spring gala at American Ballet Theatre), the cheerful, fast-talking choreographer was enthusiastic about the endeavor, which his website describes as “choreographic portraits illuminated by the sequencing of his own genome… an abstract meditation on aspects of self…” In fact, “Autobiography” is the first of a series using his genetic code and archive; it’s a project that, for him, scratches the surface of what’s possible in mining such scientific data for performance.

His research for “Autobiography” followed the usual path to tracing our roots: through a “23andme”-type analysis of his DNA (not exciting news, he reports: he has 90 percent European and Irish ancestry). He then had his genome sequence (the set of “instructions” that are handed down the generations) analyzed by a genetic clinic. The resulting blueprint—along with such prompts as poetry, an old photo, a lingering memory, a personal story—drives the choreography and the production elements, generating movement, structure, sound (electronic composer Jlin’s multi-layered score, which is a mix of industrial and natural sounds, dance music, voices and more) and imagery (including a metal framework set, projections and sculptural lighting).

The structure of “Autobiography” itself is unpredictable, as it changes nightly. It comprises 23 dance sequences, to mirror 23 pairs of chromosomes, and those sequences unspool in random order for each performance as dictated by a computer-generated algorithm. Thousands of permutations are possible, according to McGregor. “The algorithm highjacks my genetic code and uses that as a drawing board for who dances, and when, and in what order the dances are,” he elaborates. “And it also applies to all the technology, the scenic changes, everything—all [are] beholden to this algorithm.”

As one critic points out, the reconfigurations reflect “the multiplicity of paths and choices that we all encounter in our lives.” McGregor views that randomness, that unexpectedness, as integral to the idea of creating autobiography, given that we are all the product of a certain amount of random genetic shuffling. And, as long as we live, he adds, “You shouldn’t be an artifact. You should be constantly evolving and developing and changing.”

The inherent instability of the performance may be exciting, but it is also challenging to perform. For example, any one of the 10 company dancers might dance to exhaustion in the first half and then not perform again that evening. At first, the company members liked the idea. Then, as the reality of it set in—“and the work is difficult for them even without all these complications,” McGregor remarks—the initial euphoria wore off. He adds, “Obviously, I’m a composer in a way, and as a composer, you like to compose the whole arc of a piece. To relinquish that is hard when you have your own biases.” If you were to look at any random sequence of “Autobiography” on paper, he says, you might think that structure is not going to work very well. Nevertheless, “You get all these surprising coalescences. We can’t predict the order of events. We can’t predict what the emotional feeling of the arc is.” Ultimately, the dancers enjoyed being forced to let go, to organize that structural logic in an unfamiliar way.

That predilection for randomness is one of McGregor’s trademarks; he was influenced by Merce Cunningham, whose work was often inspired by life’s haphazardness. McGregor, now in his late 40s and with a large body of work under his belt—30 pieces for his own company plus commissions for dance companies around the world as well as for film, TV, fashion shows, opera and more—is especially thrilled with this gene-specific direction to his work because it gives him the opportunity to meet with scientists and explore the future of genetics. “The data is so overwhelmingly huge,” he says. “The billions of bits of information allow you to find lots of different expressions for it. There are so many ways to interpret it—the creative opportunities are really, really rich. [For example], could the data in my body feed back in real time? What would that look like?

“It sounds very cerebral, very heavy,” he concedes. But he has advice for the audience: “You have to kind of surf it, let it spill over you and into you… see what kind of feeling or emotion or intelligence emerges. It’s like poetry, it has multiple meanings. It has conceptual roots, but it doesn’t have to feel conceptual in the theater—it can feel like an amazing physical rush… like an adrenaline bullet that bypasses the brain.”

March 8 → 10

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission St., San Francisco 392-2545