Wayne McGregor is quick. He thinks quickly. He speaks quickly. And if you watch the dance he's created for OZ Nashville's inaugural performance Thursday, you'll see that among the variety of hard-edged jerks and flowing, oceanic movements, the one constant in his choreography is its quickness.
During a phone interview from his home in London, it's evident that McGregor's mind works faster than most people's, so his movements have no choice but to follow suit.
McGregor, who at 44 has been leading the troupe Random Dance for almost half his lifetime, doesn't always travel with his dancers. He is currently working with the Royal Ballet, where he's been resident choreographer since 2006. But when his company scheduled a date in Nashville for the inaugural performance at OZ Nashville, McGregor was eager to schedule a cross-Atlantic flight.
"I travel with the company as much as I can," he says, "but I'm a working choreographer, and the thing that I want to do most of all is to be in the studio, making. But I really wanted to come to Nashville: one, because I've never been, so I thought that was pretty exciting. And I love that it's a new venue — the inaugural program looks really extraordinary, and I wanted to be a part of that."
The work they are performing, FAR, premiered in 2010, and it's often described with references to the Age of Enlightenment and Denis Diderot's invention of the encyclopedia. If you think it's unusual for a choreographer to draw inspiration from the history of scientific inquiry, just listen to how McGregor tells it.
"In the Age of Enlightenment," he explains, "the body was put into question, so all of a sudden you had human autopsies where they realized that men and women actually had the same amount of ribs, and that completely changed their notion of the whole Adam and Eve concept, and called religious dogma into question. All of the sudden, you're doing human autopsies and understanding how the body works in a different way. We were starting to challenge notions of what it was to be a human being."
From this perspective, McGregor's choice to base his choreography around this construct makes complete sense — in fact, the surprising part is that other choreographers aren't going around making up dances about the Age of Enlightenment.
"Often a point of departure is the thing that you start making choreography from, but it doesn't necessarily mean you're making it about that. Concreteness in dance-making is not something that interests me. I think that what dance does very well is ambiguous. It does otherness very well. It elicits kinds of feelings that go beyond the verbal."
So even though McGregor started the piece as he was considering the Age of Enlightenment — FAR is an acronym for Flesh in the Age of Reason, the title of historian Ray Porter's book about the subject — it grew into something more than that, something much less academic than it might at first seem.
"I think people can decide what kind of audience they want to be," he says. If you want to engage with the work from a conceptual point of view, McGregor will encourage you to investigate the readings and the scientific inquiries he's modeled the piece after. "But if you don't want to do that — if you're the kind of person who just looks at what's there, sees what emerges and constructs your own meaning from it — that is also a fantastic thing to do and actually so content-rich."
Whichever way you think about it, FAR will likely exceed your expectations of what dance is supposed to look like. "I think one of the kicks you can get out of the work is its physical punch. It's very visceral work." It's no accident that McGregor describes his work in terms of combat — seeing his dancers move is like watching an army of spasmodic soldiers flail about with precise synchrony.
FAR features 10 dancers in a 60-minute performance. Behind them, 3,200 LED lights are installed at angles that never directly point into the audience's line of vision. And the music they dance to was composed specifically for the work by Ben Frost, notable for his frequent collaborations with Brian Eno. McGregor values creative collaboration, and he chooses who he works with without considering labels like highbrow or mass appeal.
In the middle of his tenure with the Royal Ballet, for example, he was approached by Radiohead's Thom Yorke, who asked him to choreograph the video for "Lotus Flower."
"He's got an amazing physical signature himself," McGregor says, "so what we worked on together in that video — it's choreographed, none of it is improvised — but it comes from him. That's exactly the same kind of process that I'd have with my dancers, because each of them has a very unique physical signature, and you just find a way of embellishing or augmenting that.
"I think the work we do with Random isn't any more highbrow than the work we might do with Thom," McGregor says with the coolness of someone who's successfully found an audience at MTV as well as the Kennedy Center. "It's just different parts of the same spectrum."