Stuart Sweeney talks with the much in demand choreographer
Still only 43, Wayne McGregor’s career is multi-faceted and he occupies a unique position in the world of dance: a distinctive dancer in his performing years; an important contemporary dance maker with a world renowned company, Random Dance; Resident Choreographer with the Royal Ballet, London; regularly commissioned by other leading companies such as Paris Opera Ballet, the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky; and co-researcher with neurophysiologists and other medical professionals on explorations of the connections between the brain, the body and dance. There’s no question that it is a feather in the cap of Estonian National Ballet Director, Thomas Edur, and his wife and assistant, Age Oks, that they have been able to bring this exceptionally sought-after artist to stage a work in Tallinn.
Speaking in London prior to the staging, McGregor, he explained that his background was anything but typical for a leading ballet choreographer. He trained as a community dance animateur, using dance as therapy, working with non-professional dancers in residential homes and staging tea dances for seniors in Redbridge, a suburb of London. But even at College he had become fascinated by contemporary dance and by the early 1990s had founded his own company, Random Dance, influenced primarily by American choreographers, including Merce Cunningham, who was an inspiration not only for his repertoire, but also for his method of working with no set rules. Random established a leading position in the UK dance world with McGregor’s distinctive dance style, exemplified by his own staccato movement. Roslyn Sulcas, writing about his choreography in the New York Times, captured the excitement that is a cornerstone of his work: “…moving with the unpredictable ducking, swooping, slicing, jutting dips and swerves that characterize [his] work…”
In 2000, at a festival event, McGregor met Deborah Bull, a Royal Ballet Principal interested in exploring new movement. She invited him to take part in “Outside In”, a workshop for company dancers, and “Symbiont(s)” was the result. McGregor told me, “The idea was to make some experiments on the bodies of the Royal Ballet artists and see what they could do.” The dancers were clearly committed to the project as they were giving up their own time to take part and some went on to excel in the contemporary dance style,” he added.
I had the good fortune to be in the Opera House’s Clore Studio for the first presentation of “Symbiont(s)” and remember my amazement at the ground-breaking dance on display. Apart from the symbiotic gathering of two dance forms on-stage, it was also a meeting ground for the audience. Some contemporary dance people attending had never seen the Royal Ballet performers and were surprised and delighted at the high quality of their offering. For me, it was a landmark event in bringing different worlds of dance closer together.
When Thomas Edur contacted McGregor about the possibility of staging a work in Tallinn, he selected “Symbiont(s)” as many of his other ballets have large sets and are unsuitable for the Estonia stage. However a problem arose explained McGregor. “I was confident we had a full video record of the work, but there was the infamous missing floor section. Then one of the stage managers at the Royal Opera House found a tape we made in the Clore and we had it all backed up.”
McGregor went on to tell me that he hadn’t made any revisions from the time he created the piece in the Clore. He said, “I’m not going to tinker. I make a piece, fix it in time, make another one. It’s interesting to look back through the filter of the ten years since I made it. Today I would make different choreographic decisions, but also I’d forgotten that I could make those decisions and it’s fascinating to see it again – it’s refreshing to look back.”
He went on: “Thomas and Agnes are my close friends of and I wanted to help them with their vision for the company.” He first met Thomas when he choreographed a short work set in front of the British Museum’s Elgin Marbles. And when he saw the couple in a classical ballet he was deeply impressed by their on-stage chemistry and wanted to make a piece for them. Matz Skoog, Director of English National Ballet agreed and the result was a short duet, “2 Human”, with both dancers in punk gear and breaking the mould of their traditional image. McGregor said, “We had a lovely, lovely time in the studio – a very pleasurable process. Agnes has an amazing sense of humour, and is so open and curious and wanting to try things.”
Turning to the question of how important “Symbiont(s)” had been in McGregor’s journey to become one of the most in-demand ballet choreographers worldwide, he explained that a lot of things happened around that time: the duet from “Symbiont(s)” was included in a Royal Ballet tour of Northern Ireland, and Reid Anderson at Stuttgart Ballet invited him to make a work. Then, Monica Mason, who when Assistant Director at Covent Garden had been watching in the Clore, had seen Random at Sadler’s Wells and who was always very curious about new dance, commissioned “Qualia”, his first work for the main stage at the Royal Opera House following her appointment as Director. McGregor told me, “It’s not just the work, but also the relationships; the people who champion your work or help you develop your work; collisions of relationships.”
There is no question that it is a coup for Estonian National Ballet to stage “Symbiont(s)”, and I was keen to see it again after a gap of 12 years. As a sage once said, “Only mediocrity is always at its best,” and some McGregor works have not ignited for me. Perhaps their intellectual rigour has had a distancing effect. But “Symbiont(s)” remains a favourite with its powerful, contemporary movement on pointe that demands extreme plasticity from the dancers.