Company Wayne McGregor
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York
February 27, 2018
— by Jerry Hochman
One doesn’t achieve the reputation and success that Wayne McGregor has achieved by crafting dances that lack intelligence or purpose. And although I haven’t been glowingly receptive to the three pieces of his that I’ve seen, I could nevertheless recognize and accept the intelligence and purpose behind them. His latest work, Autobiography, which had its U.S. premiere on Tuesday at the Joyce Theater, is the same as the others in that I can’t dispute that there’s an intelligence and intended purpose to it. But the dance is so opaque and incoherent that no matter how much I try to explain what I think McGregor is trying to do here, in the end I cannot avoid concluding that Autobiography is unentertaining, unenlightening, and just plain dull.
It’s not that Autobiography has nothing to recommend it. It’s obviously a work of expert craftsmanship that might appeal to those who appreciate seeing bodies moving through space to frenetic and maximalist choreography. And to those for whom a great evening’s entertainment is seeing dancers pushed to the limits of physical endurance for no apparent reason beyond demonstrating what fine artistically-inclined athletic automatons they are, Autobiography will strike a receptive chord. And most emphatically, for those whose primary interest is seeing an extraordinary display of choreographed lighting that is successful on its own merits, albeit it by tracking and framing – and at times overwhelming – the choreography rather than enhancing it, then Autobiography is definitely a destination.
At best, and given considerable intellectual leeway based on information that McGregor has provided via program notes, Autobiography is interesting the way looking at a slide under a microscope might be considered interesting (as opposed to enlightening, insightful, or instructive) – which, perhaps, is the way it’s supposed to look.
Per the included program note, the dance is “illuminated” by McGregor’s own genome map. [Accenting the “bio” letters in Autobiography (and, in the program, doing so displaying the letters colored in red) highlights McGregor’s focus on the “biology” in “autobiography.”] Consequently, and theoretically, the figures on stage represent McGregor’s own genetic material – chromosomal DNA – that he uses as a foundation of sorts for the dance. And one can accept that at certain points the dancers may indeed be seen as individual genes on a chromosome in his genome, and that the semi-discrete “scenes” are reflections of what might be programmed in an individual chromosome.
But McGregor also claims to be doing more than just illustrating bits and pieces of his genome. The program note asserts that the piece is a “choreographic portrait” of himself that is an “abstract meditation on aspects of self, life, and writing, refracting both remembered pasts and speculative futures.” Translated, I think this means that Autobiography uses McGregor’s genome as a framework, but the exercises on stage, broken into those scenes, aren’t limited to illustrating some genetic predisposition. Rather, they reflect his memories of what that predisposition has created and, supposedly, future trends based on genetic predisposition and remembered facts.
If that’s McGregor’s purpose here, it would make an interesting and undeniably complex demonstration of the audacity of genius – that is, if his purpose was successfully communicated. But what Autobiography communicates is not interesting to watch, and its complexity is limited to the specifics of the movement rather than a set of ideas.
I’ll divide the ensuing discussion into two general (but not completely discrete) components: initially giving McGregor and the piece the benefit of every doubt and every inference, and then putting all that into the context of the stage presentation, which is where it loses significance.
Even though most of the time Autobiography appears to be a hodgepodge of movement, there’s a design to it (albeit not readily comprehensible) and a balance (seemingly disconnected movement by individual dancers that lasts for minutes – seeming hours – at a clip suddenly comes together in unexpected synchronization, patterning, and sequencing). And, with the benefit of the program note’s guidance, I can accept on a theoretical level that each of the discrete and semi-discrete scenes I could discern focuses on one or another character trait that each chromosome, individually or in conjunction with others, is intended to program: male and female tendencies (x and y chromosomes, if you will – which can be seen in the opening and concluding segments), sexual aggressiveness, sexual ambiguity, violent and non-violent tendencies, physical capability, and perhaps (although not explicitly stressed to me visually) artistic ability and a soupcon of anomie. That these traits are the subject, directly or tangentially, of each segment of the piece is also an essential leap of faith – if McGregor were just visualizing his genome map, the result would be a static display of genes and chromosomes. Autobiography is anything but static.
Further, and based on information that the program note provides, McGregor transmits a sense of fluidity within the genome (aside from any visualization of past or future behavior). He’s not just illustrating chromosomes and the qualities they may predispose, he’s also using non-program DNA as a support and background for the coding DNA. That is, in several of the scenes, some dancers are considerably more “active” than others. Indeed, in one segment, the stage is very visibly divided between “active” and “passive” dancer components, with the “passive” dancer/genes/DNA moving as if in a trance.
And McGregor’s movement quality itself, though seemingly without any pattern, is not a product of an orthodox stylistic imposition on an audience. His style has been described as a combination of angularity, speed, and fluidity, which fittingly, if narrowly, describes the movement in Autobiography as well as in the other pieces of his that I’ve seen: Outlier, which he created for New York City Ballet in 2010; Borderlands, a piece presented here in 2013 by San Francisco Ballet; and Witness, a pas de deux he created for Alessandra Ferri and Herman Cornejo. Without the fluidity, what one sees is not unlike much other European-based post-modern choreography. With the fluidity, however, the movement is a different, and much more visually interesting, choreographic animal.
Lastly, and if one assumes that the dancers are representative of individual genes, McGregor takes great care to make clear that each gene is in some way unique. He does this to a significant extent by costume change. In some segments, the dancers are dressed in simple and skimpy off-white costumes (the men shirtless); but in others one or more wear black pants or tops or both, in an ever-changing (albeit restricted) panoply that also serves to deemphasize a particular dancer’s individuality in favor of illuminating the dance’s overall subject – himself.
All this is in keeping with McGregor’s known interest in science and his application of scientific/mathematic principles to dance. The movement quality in Autobiography, like Outlier and Borderlands, can be seen as driven by energy forces. In near-constant motion, the bodies move through space while seemingly being controlled by forces both external and internal. The bodies interact, mostly in pairs, sometimes with each other, sometimes pushing and pulling each other, sometimes enveloping each other, and in the process providing a glimmer of emotional undercurrent amid the sense of intense austerity that permeates the piece. And, as was the case in Outlier, it would not surprise me if there is a mathematical component to the structure and movement quality in Autobiography, albeit one that cannot possibly be digested in one viewing – if it can be discernable at all.
But this reflects the problem I have with this dance: none of what I’ve written above accurately describes the visual impression that Autobiography communicates. There is no sense of coherence here (although framing the dance with what must be a display of a “y” and an “x” chromosome provides some balance, if no clear direction); no sense of the whole being more than the sum of its parts. And, with some exception, there’s little sense of purpose to each segment beyond what I’ve manufactured based on the information that the program note provides. If one didn’t know that this was based on McGregor’s own genome, one would never be able to discern that, or any component of it, based on what appears on stage. Not only can one not see the forest, the person, for the trees, one can’t discern trees.
There’s a modicum of merit to Autobiography if it’s considered a completely abstract presentation of bodies moving in space, and there’s certainly sufficient movement variety to avoid being seen as monochromatic. If that were McGregor’s goal, however, it represents a great deal of intellectual effort expended for minimal impact. But that’s not McGregor’s stated goal: Autobiography isn’t supposed to be “just” an abstraction of bodies moving in space. What he says he’s doing (via the program note) begs for something more choreographically concrete. And there’s no doubt that there’s supposed to be “something” there beyond abstract movement – the opening “y” chromosome scene, for example, clearly shows a male “awakening,” as if in a primordial, animalistic environment filled with avian movement quality. But this goes nowhere. And the concluding “x” chromosome shows a female seemingly having completed its navigation through genes, space and time. But it’s all incomprehensible as a totality.
And even where one of the dance’s segments seems to have a purpose (either to illustrate a genetic predisposition, remembered fact, or speculation based on either or both – and the fact that one can’t tell the predisposition from the fact from some future prediction is part of the dance’s problem), some of what McGregor has inserted is disturbing. In the segment I’ve described as illustrating sexual aggressiveness (totally my interpretation) McGregor includes images, fleeting though they may be, of sexual contact and lust that might be seen as demeaning and objectifying to women. I suppose that if one were trying to convey a visualizing of a genetic predisposition to sexual aggressiveness (or hormonal awakening), or some remembered visualization of the manifestation of that predisposition, that that’s a way to do it, but I found it annoyingly gratuitous.
Ultimately, however, what doomed Autobiography to me is that about halfway through it I stopped caring whether I “got” whatever it was that McGregor was trying to say or do. The piece is just tiresome to watch – and not because one is exhausted vicariously by the dancers’ non-stop movement. Autobiography is not a collection of dances at a gathering; it’s not a visual portrait of the artist/choreographer as a young man, in toto or in component parts; it’s not an illustration of isolated chapters in a book of personality recipes; it’s not remembrances of things past or going back to the future; and any universality it may contain is solely a product of its lack of discernable individuality. In attempting to do everything and be everything, Autobiography ends up being nothing.
The fact that McGregor is a known and respected choreographic quantity makes me consider the possibility that I was just not getting what was apparent to others (a sizeable fraction of the opening night audience), but about halfway through the 80+ minute intermissionless piece, I rejected that too (the majority, from my vantage point, looked as befuddled as I felt), and focused instead on admiring the efforts of the ten dancers and trying to avoid getting a migraine from the disturbingly loud and percussive electronic score by Jlin to which McGregor’s choreography was all too often dependent on and limited by (although there are occasional merciful moments of excerpts from musical compositions that, by comparison, seemed both elegiac and blissful), and Lucy Carter’s masterful but over-the-top (and into the audience) lighting.
My understanding is that this piece is the first in a projected series of dances in which McGregor will explore the same subject – himself. Perhaps the significance and impact of Autobiography will be clearer in context with the other thematic components, and maybe not appear so pointless and self-indulgent. Until then, and given what McGregor says he’s doing, what Autobiography shows is that behind the curtain is a cold and incomprehensible genius: the wizard of id.
Finally, if all that I’ve written above comes across as simply an intellectual exercise that ultimately is clear as mud, you have an idea of what it was like to watch Autobiography.