Eisenhower Theater, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC; May 1, 2014
I suspect that many in the audience held mixed opinions of Wayne McGregor’s “FAR.” I did. In some ways the title seemed particularly apt. For example, the work was being performed far from Sadler’s Wells in London, where McGregor’s company Random Dance is the Resident Company. It was also pretty far out, meaning it departed considerably from the conventional Kennedy Center offerings. And I felt distant watching it, as almost everything about “FAR” seemed cold and of another time, either far in the past, or far in the future. “FAR,” however, I learned from the copious program notes, is an abbreviation taken from “Flesh in the Age of Reason,” a book by Roy Porter that investigates the history of the Enlightenment as it relates to the exploration of the body and soul.
If you can’t tell from the title’s inspiration, McGregor is an intellectual sort of choreographer. It’s readily apparent he puts a great deal of time and effort into grappling with ideas and images that become his dances. He takes dance nerdiness to a whole new level. I’m nerdy, too, and I appreciate McGregor’s brainy pursuits. In a post-performance discussion, he admitted that he has spent 12 years working with cognitive scientists. But does all the thought that’s put into McGregor’s choreography result in a more satisfying dance experience? For me, in this case, unfortunately, no.
“FAR” had an unforgettable beginning, though. McGregor evoked a medieval setting. Four dancers held torches bursting with flames, which flickered as baroque vocals played. The flame bearers surrounded a man and a woman who were nearly naked. Those with the barest bodies at the start set the tone for the work as they snaked about in a rubbery, highly stylized, precise manner. They seemed to engage in a kind of calligraphy, busily bending themselves into sweeping script. I kept seeing upper bodies exaggeratedly extended forward, hands pulled behind the back. Dancers awkwardly lumbered, their strange gaits reminding me of a drunken Gumby. The gross distortions and pliable bodies were sometimes beautiful, and sometimes a little frightening. Also disturbing were the couples who grasped and pushed each other. At one point, a man and woman mouthed and gestured angrily at each other, about what?
Throughout the work, the dancers wore very little. If not earthy flesh tones, then primarily muted grays clung in small pieces to their bodies. The costume design by Moritz Junge made a canvas of simple colors. The costumes placed the dancers in no time in particular, and gave them no personality in particular, and were somehow perfect for “FAR.”
The lighting design by Lucy Carter emphasized every muscle, every rib, and every curve of the dancers’ bodies. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen lighting that has done this so well. More importantly, Carter’s lighting design did not compete with, but absolutely complimented the large suspended LED panel designed by rAndom International. The lights on the LED panel had an opportunity to dance almost as frequently as the dancers. I found the changing patterns intriguing (fireflies, sunbursts, digits) but distracting, and I stopped staring at the panel in order to look more closely at the movement of the bodies.
The original music by Ben Frost came awfully close to the sort of annoying static-filled stuff I hear a lot at performances of contemporary dance. Why is it that contemporary choreographers lean toward music that sounds like it comes from a science fiction film, all blasts and blares and spits and buzzes? In this case, Frost threw in grunts and growls and even slurpy noises, making me think of primordial ooze and evolution. Occasionally, the atmosphere seemed like a zoo. The dancers’ limbs stretched up and out in odd positions like the limbs of newly-born long-legged creatures. The dancers also crouched and crawled across the floor like animals ready to pounce. Some of the dancers looked so matchstick thin, I wanted to feed them, which also reminded me of a zoo.
I’ll give McGregor an A for being bold, for bringing neuroscience to the stage, and for challenging his dancers and the audience. Yet I think I’d give the overall experience of “FAR” an average mark, a C. Not that he’d care particularly about how a dance critic would score it. McGregor made clear in his remarks after the performance that he quite consciously ignored the “rules” of choreography he’d learned. His intention with “FAR” was to get the body to “misbehave,” or, in other words, to break the rules. He also intended for the audience to look at dance in a new way. McGregor explained that he wanted to create a work that forced us to discard the “filters” we typically use to see dance.
When an audience member commented that “FAR” was “frenetic,” and he appreciated the few calm moments, which acted as a pause in the syntax of dance language, McGregor didn’t disagree with the characterization of his work as being fast and frenzied. Maybe the pace of life in central London, where he lives, contributed to his preference for prodding dancers to move so quickly, he mused. As a dance critic, through my dance critic “filter” and my awareness of the “rules,” my observation is that the fast-paced chaos was not pleasurable. I wanted to see and enjoy everything on stage, and I could barely take in a fraction of the dancers’ movement, let alone take in all of the lighting and sound. McGregor understands that the movement is exceedingly rich and that people’s eyes tire as they struggle to catch it all. No matter, he would say. My complaint that I had trouble paying attention to all of the movement would only be a problem if seeing all of the movement all of the time was what McGregor had in mind. Surprisingly for a choreographer, it wasn’t, he said. While most choreographers would place dance at the top of the hierarchy in a performance, McGregor carefully considered all of the production elements, especially lighting and sound, and he apparently took into account that sometimes people’s brains, including my own, would draw one’s attention away from the steps his dancers did.
Despite the heady ideas related to its conception, “FAR” didn’t feel as fresh as I had hoped. I actually love seeing movement that shocks me, but at the same time, I’ll admit that I want certain rules to be followed. Dancing that’s so rapid-fire I can barely take it in is a disappointment. I reveled in the bits my brain allowed me to process, the few slow and still moments, because that fits better with my present sense of aesthetics. Good for McGregor for wanting to shake things up, but this dance critic probably isn’t going to change her preferences overnight.