Living Archive
Rebecca Bassett-Graham and Izzac Carroll in “Living Archive: An AI Performance Experiment” by Wayne McGregor. Photograph by Cheryl Mann

Living Archive

Wayne McGregor and Thomas Adès team up in “Adès & McGregor: A Dance Collaboration”

Performance
The Royal Ballet and Company Wayne McGregor perform “Adès & McGregor: A Dance Collaboration”
Place
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, California, July 12-13, 2019
Words
Victoria Looseleaf

He’s collaborated with some of the world’s most notable boldfaced names, including Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Jack and Meg White of the White Stripes. He’s also served as movement director in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. But one of Wayne McGregor’s most recent collaborators is, perhaps, his most audacious yet—the Google Arts & Culture Lab, the results of which, “Living Archive: An AI Performance Experiment,” was seen onstage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion last weekend in a program dubbed, “Adès & McGregor: A Dance Collaboration.”

Adès, of course, is the internationally acclaimed, Grammy Award-winning British composer, Thomas Adès, who happened to be conducting the equally stellar Los Angeles Philharmonic in three of his works—two world premieres and one dance new to the West Coast—all L.A. Phil commissions, to boot. Oh, and did we also mention that the program was danced by members of the Royal Ballet, where McGregor has been resident choreographer since 2006, as well as his own troupe, Company Wayne McGregor? If that combination sounds intriguing, it was also daring and a tad mind-expanding, though not always in the most nourishing way.  

Indeed, McGregor, born in 1970, is a cerebral dude whose experiments have led him into dialogues with an array of artistic forms, scientific disciplines, and technological interventions. The astonishing and multi-dimensional works resulting from these interactions have branded McGregor as a kind of high priest of contemporary arts for more than twenty-five years, with the New York Times writing, “an adventuresome experimenter with a restless mind, intent on pushing his disparate audience, his collaborators and himself.”

So, with all the hoopla—the L.A. Phil recently concluded its phenomenal centennial season which included some 60 commissions—was the evening one for the ages, or one to be remembered for the AI work, which was technically brilliant, but featured some fairly detached dancing programmed according to algorithms, or what McGregor calls the “transaction of energy between computer space and live body.”

Company Wayne McGregor perform “Living Archive: An AI Performance Experiment” by Wayne McGregor. Photograph by Cheryl Mann

Admittedly, the 30-minute work, set to Adès’ “In Seven Days” (commissioned by the Phil in 2008 and also featuring the piano soloist Kirill Gerstein), did offer a range of video installations, courtesy of Ben Cullen Williams, which began with code flashing incessantly behind the nine dancers that then morphed into brain-freezing but occasionally luminous imagery. Little connections, however, were made between the nine McGregor dancers and the powerful, albeit, overwhelming, backdrop. Nor did there appear to be any concrete relationship to the ostensible narrative—the biblical creation of the earth.

That said, there were motifs in the music, which was occasionally playful, occasionally pastoral, with Gerstein tossing off arpeggios while the computer-generated imagery became ever more headache-inducing. The dancers, hyper-flexible and cited as choreographic collaborators with McGregor, never flagged: Deploying more six o’clock extensions than Big Ben, with splayed limbs, deep lunges, weird one-armed handstands and pliable spines, the performers seemed to be in a Matrix-like world where release might come from some serious flapping and swooping of the arms, another recurring concept.

If life now is really all about numbers, passwords and swiping left (or is it right?), a return to the, well, rotary phone—or even a landline—would not be completely unwanted at this juncture, or at least let us go back to veritable human-to-human connections. Google may know where we are, what we are doing and what we might want to eat, read, buy or otherwise consume, but it doesn’t have the capability to know the body as real flesh and blood, a dancer’s true currency.

Google may know where we are, what we are doing and what we might want to eat, read, buy or otherwise consume, but it doesn’t have the capability to know the body as real flesh and blood, a dancer’s true currency.

All, however, was not lost. Adès’s “The Dante Project Part I (Inferno),” the 45-minute first half of what will eventually be a full-length ballet to be performed by the Royal Ballet in 2020, was first conducted by Gustavo Dudamel and performed by his LA Phil at Walt Disney Concert Hall last May (sans dancers) and proved a more palatable creation. The score, performed in 13 sections, with each representing levels of Dante’s hell, features lots of brass, winds and even castanets, with shades of Shostakovich, Bernard Herrmann and that titan of Romanticism, Liszt, with Adès describing the music as “a grateful tribute to Franz Liszt, the composer of Hell and demonic music.”

Ah, yes, Hell’s proverbial doom and gloom was given a boost by Tacita Dean’s designs, including a large backdrop that was effectively able to transform the various scenes through Lucy Carter’s and Simon Bennison’s sumptuous lighting design. Having a dramaturg, Uzma Hameed, who previously worked with McGregor and the Royal in the 2015 production, “Woolf Works,” also abetted the narrative, with Edward Watson (clad in turquoise) as Dante and Gary Avis (sporting orange), performing the role of Virgil, with an additional 33 Royal Ballet dancers adding to the vastness of the production.

Edward Watson and Artists of the Royal Ballet in “The Dante Project (Inferno)” by Wayne McGregor. Photograph by Cheryl Mann

Adès provided plenty of punch with moody music accentuated by timpani (think Ken Russell’s 1975 film, Lisztomania), with harp, strings and flutes offering, at times, a counter effect—an Albert Brooks kind of Defending Your Life hereafter. Still populated with sinners of all stripes—the greedy, the deadly, the perverse—and the list goes on, including gypsies, thieves, and your cookie-cutter lost soul types, the dancers proved resolute. Executing gorgeous solos, duets and an assortment of unisons with enough bourrées to fuel a field of Giselles, there were also, inexplicably, casual cartwheels, with angst also building and women mouthing silent screams.

The penultimate scene, something P.T. Barnum would have enjoyed, featured a coterie of men performing a madcap round of lightning quick fouettés to Adès’s rollicking music, which proved a showstopper, as applause ensued. The lights then dimmed and everything in this ballet of exaggerations, nevertheless came to a meditative close (yes, there were even yoga-like bow poses). This spiritual pilgrimage through the afterlife demands to be seen, with the full work, hopefully, returning to L.A. after its Covent Garden premiere.

Opening the bill was “Outlier,” from 2010 and created for the New York City Ballet. Set to Adès’s 2005 Violin Concerto and performed by Leila Josefowicz, the work’s subtitle is “Concentric Paths,” and showcased 11 dancers from both troupes. Also featuring McGregor’s visceral vocabulary—maximum articulation, undulating upper torsos and slicing legs—it is mostly unballetic but beautiful in parts, with lighting by Carter (recreated by Bennison), and McGregor and Carter’s set design—concentric circles in vibrant reds and broad vertical stripes in shades of gray—not overwhelming the performers.

With superb partnering, including making use of women as figureheads, ultra-slithery bodies and deep pliés, the work, like the music, is not subtle. But neither does it assault the senses. McGregor is a choreographic force to be reckoned with (his 2017 “Autobiography,” making use of his own genetic code, was seen at the Pavilion last October), and L.A. is lucky to have had him grace our shores.

Though not the first to embrace technology (hello Merce Cunningham’s 1999 “Biped,” Trisha Brown’s work with an artist-designed AI, and Bill T. Jones, who partnered with Google Creative Lab earlier this year), one might wonder how the body can remain front and center in a culture where Google, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp continue to supersede the natural world of real human contact. Ever optimistic, though, this writer was still in thrall to the fabulous dancers who perfectly embodied art at the highest level, with the music, a consummate cosmic wall of sound, making the night a singular outing in the City of Angels.

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