Company Wayne McGregor’s ‘Autobiography’ at Sadler’s Wells

Questions abound in Company Wayne McGregor’s highly innovative, but slightly esoteric performance, ‘Autobiography’, shown at Sadler’s Wells.

If you stripped ballet of plot, decor, costume and courtesy – basically everything that isn’t movement – Company Wayne McGregor’s Autobiography is what you get. Their performance has unapologetically and almost inhumanely broken away from all of the “faff” that more traditional dance comes with. It is an intense, two-hour long performance with blasting dubstep and no interval, thus little opportunity for the dancers or audience to catch their breath. It’s needless to say that the skill of the performers leaves little room for critique. However, the 10-strong troupe comes across like a tireless industrial dance machine with individual, high-spec gears.

Company Wayne McGregor’s Autobiography at Sadler’s Wells. Photograph by Richard Davies and courtesy of Sadler’s Wells.

In terms of visual scenery, the collaborative effort between Lucy Carter’s powerful lighting and Ben Williams’ bare set design is stunning. The ambient contrast between the dangling array of tetrahedrons and programmable LED light strips was really nothing short of superb. The ensemble of sharp edges, the light and smoke against a pitch-black stage made for an amorphous space, with all blurring the outline of the space. The lighting and set design could be a successful stand-alone installation. In terms of music, Jlin’s genre-defying electronica worked well at times, but on occasion it was just too demanding. It felt like the fix of beats one would turn to pull through some heavy crunching task or for indulging in some recreational chemical cocktail, but it did not always feel like music made for dance.

Company Wayne McGregor’s Autobiography at Sadler’s Wells. Photograph by Andrej Uspenski & courtesy of Sadler’s Wells.

The performance is split into 23 pieces, one for each chromosome pair in the human genome. Each show, according to the Company’s description, is unique because the order of dance pieces is re-shuffled algorithmically to set the repertoire of the evening. Effectively this means that, assuming a permutation without repetition of the pieces, the number of unique performances of the piece is a stupidly-long number (23-digits to be precise, which is comparable to the number of atoms in the adult human body). You can dedicate a lifetime, starting from birth, just watching all the versions of this performances, and still not see all the possible outcomes until natural death catches up with you – this is how open-ended McGregor’s concept is. The base sequence (pun intended) referenced for the performance, was McGregor’s own genome.

Although conceptually interesting, the narrative of Autobiography feels like a box-ticking excuse to put the dancers on stage. The performance is saturated because, for the most part, the dancers move independently of each other at their own rhythm. One could read into this some nebulous allusion to the simultaneous parallel existence of many stories. However, given the specific reference to the genome and collaboration with Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, this interpretation feels superficial. Unfortunately, one feels that much of the ideas invested in this piece have become lost in translation because some basic questions were simply not unpacked. For example, were there really references to the four bases found in DNA? How exactly did these translate into movement? More importantly, when did rule-driven dance give away to creative decision-making? Would it make a difference had the input been someone else’s genome sequence and not Mr. McGregor’s?

Company Wayne McGregor’s Autobiography at Sadler’s Wells. Photograph by Andrej Uspenski & courtesy of Sadler’s Wells.

The 23 pieces were punctuated with numbered titles, projected on a sad screen at a neck-breaking height, banished away from the spectacle on stage. The titles possibly reference McGregor’s personal memories, but a narrative relation to the actual dance is diluted beyond reason. If one were to faithfully read into the title, this would appear to be an autobiography of someone caught in the moment – a glimpse into a workspace, not a performance or show in the classical sense. The audience is a guest, but not an anticipated or welcomed one. Rather we are foreign spectators left to our own devices. The Wayne McGregor Company is doing brilliant work, pushing the disciplinary limits of dance, but Autobiography didn’t provide a sense of closure and left one wishing that the lead choreographer had – ironically – taken more creative ownership of the performance. Technology is always the answer, but one must not forget what the question was – in this case, what is the audience taking away from the holistic experience of the performance?

Wayne McGregor’s Autobiography was performed at Sadler’s Wells on the 26th-28th July 2018. For more information click here: http://waynemcgregor.com/productions/autobiography/


Bonnie Buyuklieva has a background in architecture from the Bauhaus University in Weimar, Germany, and is currently researching cities for her PhD. She did interviews and was on the editorial team of “HORIZONTE - Journal for Architectural Discourse". Bonnie also writes for London Student’s arts section and contributes to the Global Lab Podcast. Her interests are in STEM, design and dance. For more information, please contact Bonnie via email: boyana.buyuklieva@gmail.com

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