Arts & Events

Company Wayne McGregor or The Question of Meaning in Dance

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean and Kathryn Roszak
Friday January 22, 2016 - 12:40:00 PM

On Saturday evening, Jan. 16, I (James Roy MacBean) attended a much anticipated dance event by the London-based Company Wayne McGregor, a group that formerly went under the name Random Dance. For this event, held at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theatre under the aegis of San Francisco Performances, I was accompanied by local dance choreographer Kathryn Roszak, who had indicated she would enjoy contributing occasional reviews of dance events to Berkeley Daily Planet. After the performance, Kathryn and I launched into a dialogue about the piece entitled “Atomos” we had just seen. I began by asking her how she would situate the boundary-crossing mixed media explorations of Wayne McGregor within contemporary dance. 


Kathryn Roszak: 

Wayne McGregor is in demand with major ballet companies yet his initial background is almost entirely in modern dance. In fact, his impetus to dance came from seeing John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever and Grease. He studied ballroom, Latin American, and disco. That background surprisingly won him the appointment that launched his career – Resident Choreographer with the Royal Ballet in London. This appointment positioned McGregor as an important choreographer in the ballet world alongside Christopher Wheeldon, Matthew Bourne, Akram Khan, and Alexander Ratmansky. It should be noted that there are quite a few brilliant women choreographers, but they have yet to receive the prestige commissions routinely offered to this particular group of men. 

Apparently, McGregor was originally noticed as a dancer for his remarkable speed and flexibility, and these characteristics are present in “Atomos.” His dancers launch into fast, intricate movements that feature sudden, unexpected extensions. Like many current ballet choreographers, McGregor’s movement inventions are relentless. He’s also known, however, for edgy collaborations with visual artists, specialists in technology, and contemporary composers, as we see in “Atomos.” 


James Roy MacBean

Once Kathryn had answered my question about how to situate the work of Wayne McGregor in contemporary dance, she in turn asked me how I liked what I had just seen. I began by observing that at a running time of 69 minutes the show was much too long. To my mind it would have been better at half that time. Secondly, I noted that there was way too much of the same thing, over and over again. There was little variety, it seemed to me, in either the admittedly stunning dance movements themselves or in the emotions they expressed or elicited in us. On this issue, the dominant emotion throughout the piece, from the opening group grope to the duos, trios, solos, and line dances, seemed to be anxiety, perhaps resulting from an attraction/repulsion syndrome toward others. The dancers repeatedly writhed in angular gestures that spoke more of anxiety than of eroticism, tenderness, or any other human emotion. Thirdly, I found the use of 3-D images, provided by Ravi Deepres, mostly gratuitous and even downright distracting. When the dancers performed front and center with 3-D images projected on five or six screens situated at varying depths of the stage-space, one simply didn’t know where to look, at the dancers or at the screens. The one exception was a brief segment when the dancers left the stage, presumably needing a rest from their extra-ordinarily strenuous workout, while the screens offered black-and-white 3-D filmed images of the dancers performing vigorous writhing gestures during which their arms and hands seemed to reach right out into the audience. 

As for the musical score by Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie and Dustin O’Halloran, heard by an over-amplified recording, it seemed a bit of this and a bit of that. I heard snippets that reminded me of bland electronic music, insipid imitations of Eric Satie’s works for solo piano, Minimalism, watered-down imitations of the drone-like sonorities of Henryk Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony, and the kind of spooky ambient muzak one hears on KALW’s “Hearts of Space” program. In saying this, I do not mean to imply that the composers consciously modeled their score after any or all of these sources. I only maintain that they created a score that seems to me to be all over the musical landscape in watered-down fashion. In short, the music, while not intrusive, was hardly engaging. All told, I found the dancing very impressive. But, to me, as a complete work, “Atomos” was largely disappointing. However, let me ask you in turn how you responded to “Atomos” by Wayne McGregor. 


Kathryn Roszak: 

In “Atomos” McGregor creates wonderfully inventive movement. The dancers attack this piece with full commitment and vigor, and they are a joy to watch. I was struck by the opening knot of dancers clothed in Studio XO’s skin-revealing costumes and bathed in Lucy Carter’s atmospheric lighting. “Atomos” has what I would call a Sixties vibe, the self-conscious desire to be ”new,” even if only retrospectively. Dancers unfold into teams moving in complex patterns, always partnered by the lighting, which gives limbs now a green hue, now a red hue. There were lovely groupings that had an almost archaic look – frenetic movement for entangled duos and trios, plus some unusual lifts with a partnered dancer curving around the mid-point of another dancer’s torso. 

McGregor’s choreography may be stunning in the moment, but little sticks in my memory. There were very few indelible choreographic images. McGregor’s choice of music may offer a key to this lack of strong images. He states that he used the music for the dancers’ warm-ups; and the music has an ambient, “spacey” quality that lacks substance. None of the movement in “Atomos” left an imprint on my memory the way the choreography of Paul Taylor or George Balanchine does. Their works have a refined power and depth that was missing here and is essential in a full-length, 69-minute work. McGregor’s movements, while endlessly innovative, eventually become a blur and only sustain interest through the dancers’ eloquent execution. I’d single out the powerful Jessica Wright, the elegant Anna Nowak, and the honest commitment of Caterina Carvalho. The use of 3-D images, as you noted, were often distracting and added little to the work, except for the black-and-white images in which the dancers seemed trapped inside the screens while struggling mightily to get out. 

James Roy MacBean: 

Finally, I have to raise the question of meaning. In his review of “Atomos” in The San Francisco Chronicle, Alan Ulrich found himself searching in vain for meaning in this work. Where does one look for meaning in a work of modern dance? Take Mark Morris’s “L’Allegro, Il Penseroso, ed Il Moderato,” for example. What meaning is there in that piece other than the sheer joy of lively dance movement set to Handel’s joyous music? One could argue, I suppose, that the terms “Allegro, Penseroso, and Moderato” derive from rhythmic markings, although Handel uses them to indicate humors, i.e., the cheerful man, the thoughtful man, and the moderate man. Thus these terms entail different types of dancing for each rhythm or humor. This might be a way of pursuing meaning in that piece. To take another example, in the work of my daughter, Los Angeles-based choreographer Arianne MacBean, one looks for meaning in the complex relations between the spoken word, music and dance movement. However, where does one look for meaning in “Atomos” by Wayne McGregor? And what meaning, if any, does one find there? 


Kathryn Roszak: 

Everything used to be so much simpler. Now choreography like McGregor’s is often overwhelmed by technology; and it’s even overwhelmed by the incredible technique of today’s dancers. It’s like being in a candy shop; and the choreo-graphers want to eat all the candy. But it’s too much, and it simply gives us a sugar high. There’s a buzz, but it’s superficial. “Atomos” started off well. I liked the first section, with its clear group architecture and great dancers. But the piece went on far too long and became tedious. It needed editing. Perhaps McGregor needs the dance equivalent of theater’s dramaturge, a person who works on the overall shape of the piece. 

Apparently, “Atomos” is Greek for the ‘indivisible’ nature of biological cells replicating and eventually undergoing cell death. McGregor likes to work on weighty subjects, and he collaborates frequently with computer scientists, biologists, visual artists, and even literary scholars. He’s clearly a thoughtful artist. However, the meaning of his work, and of “Atomos” in particular, remains elusive.