Friday 12 June 2009

Between brain and body

Entity, Sadler’s Wells, London

How much can you dare with beauty? It takes a genius to push the boundaries of an art form without compromising excellence. It takes Wayne McGregor to recalculate the coordinates within which contemporary dance makes its way towards innovation, without losing sight of what dance ultimately is about: the sheer beauty of bodies.

With his past cutting-edge productions, such as Chroma (2006) and Infra (2008), Wayne McGregor has coined a new vocabulary for contemporary dance. It is an idiom in which nobody else can speak, yet he uses it to communicate with unprecedented eloquence, as in Entity, McGregor’s latest work for his company Random Dance. The piece premiered last year at Sadler’s Wells and, after an international tour, came back onto the same stage from 4 to 6 June: an invaluable chance for those who missed it.

Entity is the first outcome of a long-term research project that McGregor started three years ago, in collaboration with neuroscientists from the universities of Cambridge, UC San Diego and Sussex. The project aims at exploring what happens in the brains of the dancers and the choreographer in the process of dance-making, shedding light onto the connection between the brain and the body. The objective is to develop an ‘autonomous choreographic agent’ or ‘entity’, in other words a software capable of generating unique solutions to choreographic problems, by reproducing human cognitive dynamics.

What is ravishing about Entity is that such a remarkable body of research fed into the choreography with subtle implicitness. What we see on stage is nothing like Artificial Intelligence, but bodies, pure bodies in never-ending motion. Restless limbs stretch to the brink of their muscular tension, undulating shoulders trace sinuous shapes, marking the space in which the bodies relentlessly conquer their consciousness. What seems to be chaos is ultimately demystifying order. Dancers’ movements are different yet synchronous. Performers dance in clusters or in pairs, taking turns on the stage and immediately bringing the beholder to the peak of an emotional climax which will not fade until the very end of the show. Entity is a demanding piece. It is technically and emotionally challenging for the dancers as much as it is rewardingly exhausting for the viewer, who gets caught in a loop of hypnotic tension, following the complex pattern of bodies on the stage.

The music undoubtedly contributes to such a gripping experience. McGregor’s musical choices are as daring as his choreography, yet always fine. This time the piece includes two moments, set to music by Joby Talbot and Jon Hopkins respectively. The music mixes smooth acoustic sequences played on rhythmic loops and strong percussive and electronic elements. The cello sequence is one of the most moving as it accompanies a pas-de-deux featuring a male and a female dancer entwining their bodies in sensual torsions. They drag their interweaved limbs on the floor as to suggest that the earth and humans are of the same matter and that’s where instinct comes from. The most enticing duets are those performed by male dancers in couples, with delicate sensuality. A choice – that of the male partners – that provokes with fine subtleness.

The performance features video installations on the background which show abstractions of the human body, leitmotiv of the piece. At the same time, mathematical structures are projected on the floor, creating patterns which frame and locate the dancers’ movements. Those structures, such as the golden ratio, seem to recall the elementary forms which underpin a pure and essential beauty in nature, mirrored by the dancers’ sculptured bodies.

The performers are, indeed, central to the piece. They also get credits in the programme as creators of the choreography along with Wayne McGregor himself. It is, indeed, stunning how dancers give themselves up for this piece. Their bodies may well be said supernatural, as capable of what average human beings could never perform. Yet they couldn’t be more human. The movements keep a quality of instinct which makes them revelatory, therefore powerfully moving.

The vision that led to the making of Entity is rare in that only an innovator like Wayne McGregor could have achieved it. He’s a master in reshuffling dance paradigms without betraying his devotion to beauty.


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