Always the most forward-looking and scientifically minded of choreographers, Wayne McGregor has now turned for inspiration not only to his own history, but also to his genetic make-up.
According to the typically (let’s kindly say) “involved” programme notes for the all-new Autobiography, he and his 10 dancers have turned past elements of his life – from personal memories to artworks that have influenced him – into choreography. And, having had his entire genome sequenced, he is now using an algorithm based on that sequence to decide exactly what audiences will see from night to night.
The idea is that the whole thing will mirror the precision and randomness of life itself: that is, based on certain building-blocks of “code”, but also, in many ways, completely unpredictable.
Presented in 23 correspondingly out-of sequence sections (reflecting the 23 pairs of chromosomes that contain the human genome), the show is, in time-honoured McGregor fashion, impeccably produced. Ben Cullen Williams’s set is an intricate metallic lattice-work that mostly hangs above the dancers but occasionally descends to be part of the action, his projections carving out sheets of light across the entire auditorium so sharp and clean you want to reach out and stroke them.
Jlin’s electronic score is pretty varied and very slick, even if, when piped through the formidable Sadler’s sound system, it’s liable at times to make your eardrums want to run for cover. And the lighting – by longtime McGregor collaborator Lucy Carter – is typically excellent, drenching the stage in colour one second, startling your irises the next.
Meanwhile, the choreography sees McGregor stretch his dancers’ frames in all sorts of familiar ways, though some passages show him in a more physically forgiving and varied mood. Liquid movements are contrasted with electric-shock shudders, and he also stirs into the mix low-slung lollops that seem to echo Hofesh Shechter, along with vaguely zoological flourishes that bring more than a little dash of Merce Cunningham to the proceedings. (In fact, the ghost of Cunningham – that great pioneer of meticulous unpredictability in dance – looms large throughout the show’s unbroken, 80-minute duration.)
Add to the evening those first-rate dancers of McGregor’s – here on absolutely firecracker form, and beautifully framed by Carter’s lighting – and you might expect an evening of marvellous entertainment. But, not for the first time with McGregor, the laudable behind-the-scenes intelligence and inventiveness translate into a spectacle that’s as exasperating as it is superficially handsome.
Although certain sections – the enigmatic “avatar” opening, the melancholic “ageing” – provide food for thought, even with those titular surtitles that introduce each section it is often as good as impossible to unpick what’s happening on stage, especially when McGregor reverts to his more tried-and-tested choreographic tropes.
And, to give one example of the frequent gap between what the programme-notes promise and what emerges on stage, we are told: “Costume by Aitor Throup explores this [serialistic] principle though the use of a ‘capsule’ approach, which produces highly individual expressions for each dancer from a limited set of building blocks or design DNA.”
What I saw was a cast apparently in something like Thai fishermen’s trousers, with the men generally bare-chested, and the women in tight, flesh-coloured bras that seemed designed above all to make them look as sexlessly like the men as possible.
The bottom line is that for all McGregor’s questing, experimental ambition, and the heft of talent on display, Autobiography all too often intrigues one moment but bores the next, and smacks of perhaps being concerned more with itself than with its audience: the ever-increasing restlessness and several early departures in my immediate vicinity felt like fair comment.
It will provide genuinely fascinating fodder for dance studies courses, and my, McGregor keeps his dancers beautifully drilled. But sadly, in all conscience, it is hard to recommend to anyone looking for a rewarding night out.
Until Oct 7. Tickets: 020 7863 8000; sadlerswells.com