Wayne McGregor Random Dance in Atomos.  Photo © Ravi Deepres

Wayne McGregor Random Dance in Atomos.
Photo © Ravi Deepres

Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, UK; October 9, 2013

David Mead

“What is a body?” headlined one article in the theatre programme. Well, as the item went on, they have presence, position, intention, emotion, desire, reach, shame, passion and so on. But while McGregor’s dancers show all of that to a greater or lesser extent in “Atomos”, I’m far from convinced that he, and they, ever really answer the question.

What cannot be argued is “Atomos” is another challenging work from the much in demand dance-maker. Right from the opening when the dancers group in a front corner of the stage, their bodies rising and falling like pistons or valves in plant that is simultaneously industrial and organic, his dance is largely choreographically compelling.

As ever, the dancers of Random are astounding, always moving with great clarity. In typical Mcgregor style, their bodies constantly twist and invert. They extend in often unexpected directions with incredible grace and fluidity. There are more ballet references than usual, including very classical pirouettes and ports de bras. Indeed, I could easily imagine much of the opening fifteen minutes in particular being danced on pointe.

The duets are particularly striking. Partners come from unusual directions and support in unusual ways as they twist and spiral around each other. The endless angular, sculptural shapes are hauntingly beautiful. Many of the duets involve the arrival of a third dancer who takes over one of the roles.

From time to time the dancers come together in ensemble sections that make use of unison. These are rather less effective. If you’re going to show unison, it has to at least be close. Sometimes here, the dancers were so out of synch that it was difficult to be absolutely sure of the intent. Another section where McGregor creates stage patterns in two groups of five also failed to hit the mark, although this may have looked better from upstairs.

Wayne McGregor Random Dance in Atomos.  Photo © Ravi Deepres

Wayne McGregor Random Dance in Atomos.
Photo © Ravi Deepres

The use of 3D technology also falls flat. Midway through the piece, seven screens descend and hover above the dancers. Cue everyone to put on their 3D glasses. Watch the screens and you see a world of floating squares, green words, and eventually a red ball, I assume symbolising the sun. Apart from the fact that the film is not desperately compelling anyway, the screens are far enough above the stage that looking at them means you miss much of the rather more interesting live action happening below. My advice: dump the glasses and just watch the bodies. Matters do improve when the screens lower further so they are almost among the dancers. Now the collaboration comes together, although whether it is really effective remains questionable.

At one point the film shows the dancers themselves in slow motion, although oddly this did not appear to be three-dimensional. That section is also intensely boring, surprising given the enthralling nature of not dissimilar film showing as part of the Thinking With the Body exhibition a mile or so down the road at the Wellcome Collection.

Longtime collaborator Lucy Carter again comes up trumps. Her lighting is striking as it switches from a base of golden, sandy warmth, through purples, blues and, at the end, a vivid, blazing red. The colour palette for the close-fitting costumes by Studio XO is a similar mix, plus plenty of sand and flashes of fluorescent lime green, all inspired by an unnamed 1980s sci-fi film. Studio XO claims to “operate at the intersection of science, technology, fashion and music…seamlessly integrating new technologies and special effects with innovative fashion design to create digital couture experiences.” If they say so, but the various shorts, briefs and tops here didn’t look anything unusual. If they were 3D-printed, you couldn’t tell.

While McGregor’s musical choices have never been to everyone’s taste, the electronically manipulated offering here, composed and played live by A Winged Victory For The Sullen is often decidedly painful. Even so, I don’t recall him ever having tried blasting the audience into next week…until now. At times the soundscape was so loud and piercing that it was excruciating. Several members of the audience around me spent large sections of the seventy minutes with their fingers planted firmly in their ears. There is a point where the dancers talk. I know that because their mouths moved and while I did hear something, I have no idea exactly what, such was the volume of the overlaying noise.

It says much for McGregor’s dancers that, despite this and all the overdone technological packaging, the abiding memory is of their wonderful bodies, moving in such fascinating ways.