Choreographer Wayne McGregor likes to make hookups with science, technology, and artistic collaborators. The result of that kind of broadly conceived and unconventional dance was everywhere apparent last weekend in his new evening length work, “Autobiography”, a dance spectacle of sorts for his London-based company that strikes a glancing blow at science as a way to organize an evening of concert dance. Loosely based on memories and other personal emotional artifacts, McGregor duplicates the 23 pieces of the human genetic code in a program of 23 short vignettes set against the electronic music of the American rising-star sound artist, Jlin.
This was a different McGregor for those familiar with “Chroma” or “Infra” and his franchised hyper-ballet works for the Royal Ballet and others. But it had some of the same familiar elements: episodic organization, aggressive lighting and sets, as well as imaginary, artificial environments that give off a sense of synthetic appeal. And while the dance didn’t look at all like the movement in the works described above it did have some of the same narcissistic showmanship as well as partnering in which the participants stay glued together in modes of mutual manipulation.
It would be difficult to make much out of McGregor’s story from the dancing itself. It comes across as an opaque narrative. If you were to watch it as an abstract journey you might be as well rewarded ignoring the story altogether. The added twist is that the whole thing spools out via a computer driven algorithm that reorders the 23 sections anew for each performance. Perhaps those most affected with this arrangement are the dancers themselves who have to cope, evening be evening, with the uncertainty. In the end, they remain the only ones privy to how effectively (or ineffectively) “Autobiography” plays out in its different incarnations. Along with different, we can assume that some versions are likely to prove more watchable than others. We’ll never know.
There was at least one noticeable gift from this chance arrangement on Friday night’s performance in the music. Deep into the program in the section titled “traces” Jlin unleashed a brief excerpt of Baroque music. It stood as a surprising way station in a performance that, up to then, had been dominated by her electronic tunes and compelling rhythms. The dramatic shifting of gears and pacing proved, at least in part, that this choreography need not be fastened to electronics in order to make sense. Jlin’s music does indeed feel more like music than the kind of thing her fellow sound artists usually produce. Motivated by acute rhythmic groves and at times a kind of quiet tunefulness that is missing from many composers working in this genre, she has in this instance put up something that fits well with dancing, making a genuine connection with movement beyond background accompaniment.
“Autobiography” follows an unplanned sequencing and alternation of solos, small, and larger scale ensembles. The dancing has been fashioned in collaboration with the 10 dancers themselves. “not I” has the contemporary improvisatory look of a street dance cipher. “world” was an outstanding ensemble section that paired the group and a couple against a track of music riffing on Indian classical sounds. “ageing” had a structural appeal with its three groups of unison dancers. And finally “instinct” with its central couple of two men generated deep emotion in its quiet ending. Dancer Fukiko Takase lent brilliant and often eccentric moving to the evening. She is a standout super-mover amongst a whole troupe of dancers who all bring varied and unconventional skills to the McGregor project.
Hovering over the whole of “Autobiography” was Ben Cullen Williams’ set piece, a superstructure of lights and a lookalike framework standing in visually for the double helix structure. With his carving beams of light flashing out over the audience, and heavily hazed stage there is a lot here vying for your attention. It remains to be seen if McGregor has made any real connection with his personal narrative and techno-science applications. The work as a whole while visually appealing feels more stilted than definitive. For now, this is the McGregor dance DNA. And as high concept dance evenings go, this one is worth revisiting.
(The reviewed performance of company Wayne McGregor took place Friday October 6, 2018 at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles as part of Dance at the Music Center. You can listen to Jlin’s version of the “Autobiography” suite on her YouTube channel.)