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Wayne McGregor: Riding the Wave

It’s not every choreographer who works with economists, anthropologists, neuroscientists and cognitive scientists, not to mention collaborating with the Google Arts & Culture Lab and the Swedish pop group ABBA, but Wayne McGregor wouldn’t have it any other way. Indeed, one of the most celebrated and sought-after dancemakers of his generation, the New York Times’ Claudia La Rocco once described him as “an adventuresome experimenter with a restless mind, intent on pushing his disparate audiences, his collaborators and himself.

And that was in 2010!

The Royal Ballet in “Woolf Works” by Wayne McGregor. Photograph by Asya Verzhbinsky

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Seriously, McGregor who has been resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet since 2006—a radical appointment considering his expertise was in contemporary dance—and has had his own company, Studio Wayne McGregor, since 1992 (formerly Random Dance), keeps pushing the choreographic envelope, and then some.

With “Woolf Works,” which premiered at the Royal Ballet in 2015, and is a dance based on the writings of Virginia Woolf, McGregor has done the seemingly impossible: He reconstructs the collision of form and substance found in three of the literary genius’ novels: “Mrs. Dalloway,” “Orlando” and “The Waves.”

The ballet, which was hailed by the New York Times’ Roslyn Sulcas as, “a compelling trilogy of works that together form a resonant, layered meditation on time and memory,” makes its American debut with American Ballet Theatre at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, April 11-14, with Max Richter’s original score performed live by the Pacific Symphony.

“Woolf Works” went on to win McGregor the Critics’ Circle Award for Best Classical Choreography, and the Olivier Award for Best New Dance Production. Other honors for the London-based McGregor include the CBE in 2011, a Prix Benois de la Danse and two Golden Mask Awards; and in 2021 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Prix de Lausanne.

 McGregor is regularly commissioned by and has works in the repertories of the most important ballet companies in the world, among them, La Scala Theatre Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet and New York City Ballet. He also routinely collaborates with a bespoke artistic team: Composers include Nico Muhly and Thomas Adès, the latter having scored the music for “Living Archive: An AI Performance Experiment” from 2019, as well as “The Dante Project,” that premiered at the Royal Ballet in 2021. Then there are his go-to teams of visual artists and designers such as Olafur Eliasson and Tacita Dean, as well as filmmakers and photographers, including Ravi Deepres and Robin Friend, respectively.  

Wayne McGregor. Photograph by Pal Hansen

Not content with just conquering the ballet world, though, McGregor has also worked as a movement director in musicals and films (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, from 2005, and The Legend of Tarzan, from 2016). In 2022, he returned to the world of fiction, and worked with renowned author Margaret Atwood in adapting her “MaddAddam” trilogy of post-apocalyptic novels into a work of the same name for National Ballet of Canada.

At last count, McGregor’s made some 160 choreographies, with his style best described as extremely physical with complex shifts in velocity and spatial shapes, replete with whipping limbs and angled stances. But his beginnings were humble: From the industrial town of Stockport, England, where his mother worked in an accounts department and his father was a greenskeeper, the multi-hyphenate, who still calls his parents every day—whether from Kenya, where he also has a getaway home, or from other disparate locations—has been a high priest of contemporary arts for more than three decades.

Fjord Review had a chance to catch up with the fiendishly busy McGregor by phone from New York, where he’d been rehearsing ABT dancers for “Woolf Works.”

“Woolf Works” premiered in 2015, with Alessandra Ferri dancing one of the lead roles when she was in her 50s, and had been retired. Then, on the cusp of 60, she performed the role again last year. How did that come about?

I was in Milan when I was in my early 20s, and had seen her do “Romeo and Juliet” outside somewhere. It made an indelible imprint on my education, and I wanted to see if she would originate this role. She would be the age when Virginia Woolf was writing.

It’s been an incredible gift; she has a kind of nuanced minimalism but evoking so much emotional temperature. She has great instinct, and as a learning curve, I thought she would be amazing, because she hadn’t done work that was that extreme before.

We’ve become great friends. She’s an artist of curiosity, who’s very open, and I was really proud to have that work with her. She’ll be performing it in New York [June 25].

Alessandra Ferri and Gary Avis in “Woolf Works” by Wayne McGregor. Photograph by Tristram Kenton

It’s hard to believe, but this is ABT’s first full-length production of yours. What was its genesis and did you have a say in the casting?

 [ABT’s artistic director] Susan Jaffe asked for “Woolf Works.” She loved it and wanted it to be a challenge for the company. I did all of the casting myself. I came in autumn and early this year. We have three incredible casts; there will be four for [ABT’s home], at the Met. All are very different and individual in their interpretations. It’s super exciting.

Had you been a fan of Virginia Woolf, how did you choose the three novels, and what kind of research did you do? I understand that Woolf had an interest in dance and regularly attended performances by the Ballets Russes.

I had been a fan, although I hadn’t read her for a while. I reread the work. Yes, Woolf was a huge dance fan, we know that, and that’s an amazing thing about her, but that’s not what drew me to the work. The experimentation of form interested me, [and] the reason I chose those three novels was that in exploring them, her style is so different in each.

It was important to have a wider canvass to explore the whole of the work. I could have made a two or three-act ballet out of one of her novels. It’s similar to the way in which she writes: These are impressionistic versions of the work, which is a beautiful thing about the writing. It’s not a literal transcript, which you couldn’t do.

I did research working with my dramaturg, Uzma Hameed, who is a Woolf expert. We also worked with the Virginia Woolf Society [of Great Britain] and went to Charleston [in Sussex], where we were able to see the archive, where she lived. We talked to many incredible scholars and did a deep dive into the work. It felt to me that the three novels in contrast would work in a triptych.

In one way, “Mrs. Dalloway” is the most narratively based, “Orlando” is the most abstract, “The Waves” is thematic. That allowed us to make different choreographic decisions. The research was intense. We made the ballet in 2015, and we started it in 2012.

Hee Seo and Aran Bell in rehearsal for “Woolf Works.” Photograph by Fabrizio Ferri

That brings me to the question of whether or not you’ve tweaked “Woolf Works” since it premiered.

Obviously, when you have a new cast, they bring a completely different flavor; it’s a living thing. They’re interpreters, incredible artists who change the emphasis and inflections to make it their own. But there are no structural differences. I haven’t changed the music, the design, [etc.] To me, a work is a collection of decisions that you make at the time you make it. Tweaking doesn’t fit naturally for me. It’s a capsule of the time it was made; but it’s also timeless - hopefully. All you can do is make the best version of the work you can, [and] history will do its job.

You have collaborators you’ve worked with for a number of years. What is your process with them? The British composer Max Richter, for example, wrote the original score for “Woolf Works.”

I’ve done many projects with Max and have been working with him for 20 years. With Max, it’s very back and forth: He sends me an idea; I send ideas to him. It’s very intuitive and interwoven. That’s one of the great things about Max, and why I chose him originally. He kind of highjacks your personal memory bank. His music gives you access to deep layers of emotions that will unfold perfectly for Woolf. He writes like she wrote. His images are slippery, not always concrete.

And working with your dramaturg, Uzma, and your lighting designer, Lucy Carter?

Uzma’s done most of my works throughout my career. She’s a scholar; she’s fantastic at helping and directing me to particular research. She’s not writing a dance scenario—we don’t work like that. We exchange ideas and we’re in the studio for periods of time, looking at choreographic decisions I’m making and what she’s seeing in the room.

Lucy has been with me for 33 years, for all of my ballets. With Lucy, for me, everything is choreographic. I don’t make a piece of choreography and she comes in and lights it. I already use light choreographically. I’m in all of the sessions with her. We sculpt the light together. I do this with all my collaborators from the beginning, we’re developing all ideas together.

We [also] worked with the architect practice, Ciguë. The first act moves at different speeds and refracts space. Another architecture firm [We Not I] filled Act Two with lasers, and lasers create spaces. It’s almost the idea of Woolf’s world of “rainbow and granite.” The granite is the blank space, the rainbow is the prismatic view.

There are also video projections and film by Ravi Deepres.

The film [in] the first act [features] Woolf’s garden, where we did a live scan of her garden, because you have all of this documentary footage of her life that is embedded in the work itself. It’s not decorative, but are the places she went to write and was experiencing. It’s a beautiful connection to her biography.

[In the third act], I wanted a very large panoramic screen that looks like a photo of the sea, but you realize as the work progresses, it’s not a photo, but a video of a sea that gets more tumultuous and is really raging by the end. It looks still, but is in motion. We filmed the sea in St. Ives [in Cornwall], a place where Virginia went to a lot, [though] it’s not where she killed herself, but is a place she really loved. She had a house there, and it’s still there.

“Living Archive,” a tool for choreography powered by AI, is a collaboration between Google Arts and Culture Lab and Studio Wayne McGregor. Photograph by Cheryl Mann

“Woolf Works” already seems to be a classic. But you’ve said that creativity can be taught. How so?

Creativity is a form of technology. Think about the makers of the past—postmodern dancemakers, Trisha Brown, for example. She had a system that always changed, it developed, but grew into a choreographic system. What are the technologies she used to be able to make work? She was interested in systems. What were the compositional tools she used in the process? It was the same way Merce [Cunningham] used LifeForms, and chance.

These are systems of working. If you’re exploring them, you understand how choreographers generate movement material. For me, that’s data. I think all choreographers have systems of making [steps]. If you can share them, you create an opportunity for people to be creative. You’re giving tools the same way you teach how to plié. It might take 10,000 hours of working—with pliéing, it’s way over 10,000 hours—so think how much time you’re practicing choreographic tools, but way less. Yet we expect them to be creative in the studio.

Creativity has to be as profound as technique. I’m a great believer that you can use the tools of the past and new choreographic tools. Look at Google; it’s very different with that, working with AI. But what’s important is that with dance, the human is always in the loop. You’re not replacing choreography, but amplifying it. That’s part of the process, not the process itself.

What draws you to a project? Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, from 2005, for example, and ABBA’S Voyage Concert, which premiered in 2022 and consists of digital versions of themselves backed by musicians?

It’s the first completely immersive and avatar concept, and [it] cost $200 million. It’s very, very high tech, and we sold 2 million tickets since it opened. But none of that was the reason I did it. I was curious how we could see an avatar on stage—that you could create an emotional avatar. People believe ABBA are on the stage. It leans into what a performance might be like in the future—that you can build empathy with digital avatars.

I wanted to work with ABBA, and had that great pleasure in Sweden. It’s my passion for performance with high technology. It was the same with Harry Potter [and] the first time I worked with motion capture. I love working with actors. I like doing things that are unfamiliar, that’s why I look for these projects to work on.

Edward Watson and Fumi Kaneko in “The Dante Project” by Wayne McGregor. Photograph by Andrej Uspenski / ROH

On top of all of your many endeavors, you’re still resident choreographer of the Royal Ballet.

I am. It’s a lovely, great pleasure of mine. It’s been 18 years now, and I’m no longer an outsider. That’s a company that’s changed so much. There are incredible choreographers, the dancers are extraordinary, and I’m grateful to have 24 ballets of my work [in the company]. There is also a great audience for new work that I’m really grateful for, too. There’s been an amazing injection of support and nurturing over this period of time.

What advice do you have for aspiring choreographers?

You have to get going—make the work. It can’t be, “I can’t make work, because, because.” When I started, I moved to London and didn’t know one person. Eventually you find an audience and find someone who’s going to nurture you. My advice is, take confidence in what you want to say. Don’t be frightened or nervous with people you admire. Write to them, share with them—get the word out there.

Where do you see yourself in the next five to ten years?

Just carrying on, hopefully, as long as I’m curious and interested. I’ve got ideas and want to keep going. There’s Google’s new AI system, virtual reality and augmented reality performances. But at the end of the day, I’m a fan of flesh and blood. It’s never the same—dancers always provide you with completely different inspirations. Live dancers are amazing creatures; they have so much talent. That’s the thing that keeps me going.

Victoria Looseleaf

Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning, Los Angeles-based international arts journalist who covers music and dance festivals around the world. Among the many publications she has contributed to are the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Dance Magazine and KCET’s Artbound. In addition, she taught dance history at USC and Santa Monica College. Looseleaf’s novella-in-verse, Isn't It Rich? is available from Amazon, and and her latest book, Russ & Iggy’s Art Alphabet with illustrations by JT Steiny, was recently published by Red Sky Presents. Looseleaf can be reached through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Linked In, as well as at her online arts magazine ArtNowLA.



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