Wayne McGregor
Photo by Linda Nylind

Wayne McGregor: “I see beauty in the dysfunctional”

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Short Profile

Name: Wayne McGregor
DOB: 12 March 1970
Place of birth: Stockport, Manchester, United Kingdom
Occupation: Dance choreographer

Mr. McGregor, how would you describe your unique style of choreography?

I see beauty in things that are dysfunctional rather than just pure line and shape. The aspiration of classical ballet has often been about a kind of grace and effortlessness and lyricism in the body, an instrument that’s in fantastic motion. I think that’s really beautiful and really interesting, but I also think there’s a whole other range of physical potential that a human body can do. So, I’m interested in that side of it. I’m interested in bodies misbehaving.

Where do you think that comes from?

I’ve always had a very long body, so I’ve been able to do things differently. I was doing body-popping and a lot of club stuff when I was around 18, when rave culture came around. That kind of permeates the way in which you see people move. I’ve not been in a classical ballet school — where you’ve seen bodies move in a particular way — since the age of eight.

“Everybody carries their own physical history, so it doesn’t matter if you’ve trained in hip-hop or body-popping or classical ballet. It’s all the same, really.”

You never had any traditional ballet training?

No! And that’s why it was so strange that I would get these really amazing jobs at places like The Royal Ballet, where I was the first resident choreographer who had never trained in a royal ballet. But I don’t think any of that matters. Being a choreographer is about the biomechanics and signature of the body. Everybody carries their own physical history, so it doesn’t matter if you’ve trained in hip-hop or body-popping or classical ballet. It’s all the same, really.

Did you go back to school to gain the technical knowledge necessary to talk to professional dancers?

Kind of. I did a degree in choreography and semiotics, as well as contemporary dance training, but I got my practice in ballet through actually doing it, right? So the first time you ever work with somebody on pointe shoes, you ask them, “What can you do?” I had no idea what you can do! But less important than knowing how the pointe shoe works is to have good dancers in the room who, when you say, “Can you do that?” they can go, “Oh no, but I can do this.”

Your approach to teaching choreography seems to rely more on collaboration than authority.

It’s a dialogue. I try to work with the best people possible and suck out their brilliance as much as possible. The job of a choreographer is to find what’s personal to them. When I worked with Thom Yorke, for example, I found out that he’s an amazing dancer. Full stop. He doesn’t really need a choreographer.

So you based the choreography around his natural movement?

Right and I think it should be like that for everyone! The “Lotus Flower” video is choreographed but it comes from him, so he feels he owns it already. He’s giving it to me, and I’m just helping him form it in a different way. When you’ve got somebody so extraordinary, it’s exciting for a choreographer; it’s effortless. Sometimes technique gets in the way of letting dancers be curious and open and try new things. Their idea of physical beauty gets in the way of them exploring. For me, there’s no point in being an artist now and just repeating things that happened in the past. 

Radiohead's Lotus Flower video featuring frontman Thom Yorke and choreography by Wayne McGregor.

How do you deal with the weight of tradition that a lot of people put on ballet?

I don’t worry about it. I think classical ballet is a contemporary art form, and we just describe it badly. We’re always talking about it in relation to its past, but I think that’s only exciting if you’re in dialogue and tension with it — not just repeating the past. I’ve been at Covent Garden for 10 years now, and you’d expect it to be extraordinarily conservative, but that is an organization of 300 people who are all super creative and want to be there. They want to be working with people who are alive, for a start! (Laughs)

Not doing pieces based on the work of dead choreographers…

Exactly. The dancers want to work with people who make something that they are the first people ever to have done. That’s very motivating. All of a sudden, history and tradition become something else. That’s very exciting.

And you are reaching a different audience as well if you are using songs from The White Stripes instead of Swan Lake.

Yeah, exactly, there are no rules! If you go from a point of view where there are no rules, the audience shouldn’t necessarily know what to expect, and that’s a really healthy thing. But some people don’t like that, right? And that’s fine with me. All I can do is work with interesting people and hope others will commission it.

How do you pick the people you collaborate with?

Usually, I look for someone that I find interesting, whether that’s a musician, a visual artist, or a scientist, then we have a conversation. You can only collaborate with people if you talk to them because something always comes up that you would never have imagined, and that then becomes a piece. If you’re working with Olafur Eliasson, of course you want to be with him! You want to be at his studio in Berlin; you want him to be in the studio with you as well. I’ve been following Olafur’s work for ages, and I love how he uses low-tech means to make otherworldly environments. 

“People think rehearsing is about making it perfect, and I’m just not into that. Making or creating something is about exploring the potential.”

That seems quite similar to how you approach choreography. What was it like working with him and musician Jamie xx on your show, Tree of Codes?

I work a lot with people who’ve never done anything for the stage, and it never worries me. For this, Jamie invented a computer program so that each page of Tree of Codes, with the holes cut out, is played rhythmically, and it gave him a kind of beat structure that he then built songs from. Then I choreographed all the pages, and Olafur found and invented the spaces that were in the pages for the stage. It’s been quite interesting. For me, the collaboration is putting in time to get to know somebody’s practice, and if you do that, then the piece makes itself. In fact, we probably won’t find the final form until we’re in the theater.

That sounds nerve-wracking but also freeing at the same time.

We’re as prepared as we can be, but when we get to that stage, it’s going to be different. I’ve got these amazing dancers that are so adaptable and mentally flexible — that’s part of their discipline. People think rehearsing is about polishing, about making it perfect, and I’m just not into that. Making something or creating something is about looking and exploring the potential, and I want to do that right up until the day of the performance. And then when we’re performing, I want to do it a bit more. There’s no reason we can’t.

Click here to read this article as it originally appeared in Purple Magazine.