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Adelaide Festival

Dancing, prosthetically

Sophie Travers on Random Dance, UK

Random Dance, Nemesis Random Dance, Nemesis
photo Ravi Deepres
Wayne McGregor is the Artistic Director of Random Dance, resident company at Sadler’s Wells in London, a middle scale touring contemporary dance company with a big reputation for innovation. Random was founded by McGregor in 1992 and has since played a leading role in the British and international development of the dialogue between dance and technology. Random is coming to Australia in March 2006 at the invitation of Arts Projects Australia to perform at the 2006 Adelaide Festival and the Cultural Festival of the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. I spoke to Wayne McGregor in London as he prepared for another busy year.

This is not your first visit to Australia?

No, I was in Melbourne in 1999 for Chunky Move’s Choreolab, but Random has never visited. We are presenting Nemesis especially for Australia, as this piece has left the repertoire now and it may be the last time it is performed.

You have made 2 new pieces since Nemesis, so why the revival?

Ian Scobie [Arts Projects Australia] saw Nemesis and feels that the piece fits the aesthetic of the Commonwealth Games cultural program perfectly. We are performing in the huge outdoor amphitheatre [Sydney Myer Music Bowl] and there is a muscular, athletic quality to the way the dancers manipulate their prosthetic limbs. It’s almost gladiatorial.

I saw the piece in 2002, has much changed since then?

It has changed a lot. We have reworked the animatronics and the film elements and added an 8 minute solo which I perform at the end in a sort of 3-dimensional environment where I am interacting with virtual figures. This makes the journey of the piece more coherent. We move from live bodies, to ‘extended’ bodies with animatronics, to the solo dancer with the virtual dancers and finally back to the unmediated live body.

That journey in some way sums up your engagement with technology throughout your career. In Nemesis there is a visible technological intervention in the animatronics, but in recent work, you seem to be shifting away from such a direct engagement with technologies.
Throughout all my work I have been reaching the conclusion that the most sophisticated technology is the body. In the last few years, the focus has not been on external equipment but rather how to use scientific knowledge to access the technology of the body. In AtaXia (2004), I was fascinated by the pathways created between the brain and the body. In Amu (2005), we worked with a heart imaging specialist to explore the complicated interaction between emotion and other biological factors, and their relationship to body and brain. In 2008, I will be making a new piece, Entity, which will further explore these ideas by building an artificially intelligent ‘body’ which can think and develop on its own. This ‘body’ will be built from the notebooks from the creation of recent productions. We will bring in a new team of American artificial intelligence experts to map all this plus the intelligences of the neuroscientists and heart specialists onto the artificial body. We’ll be building something altogether new.

Your ability to find top rate collaborators is not diminishing then!

I have always found technologists to be fascinated by the access I, as a choreographer, working with dancers, have to the internal technology of the body. With the neuroscientists and heart specialists we are dissecting the dialogue between body and brain and adding layers of complex understanding about biodirectional communication. The creation of this new artificially intelligent body with both interior and exterior perceptions visibly at play will give us all so much to work with.

But you wouldn’t have got to this sophisticated point of enquiry without the earlier work.

No. In Nemesis I am still exploring the exterior possibilities for the body, as I was in the trilogy [The Millenarium, 1997, Sulphur16, 1998 and Aeon, 2000]. In those productions we were pitching the body against the technologies, assaulting it from the outside world, and in Nemesis, with our extended animatronic limbs, we are grafting technology onto the body. The lack of control the dancers experienced with those limbs and the discoveries we made about a misbehaving body, refusing to comply with the instructions of the brain, aroused the curiosity which led to AtaXia, a piece inspired by disconnected brains and bodies.

Did you struggle to communicate with the scientists at any point in your collaborations?

Of course it was tricky initially, but we soon realised we had a lot to contribute to each other’s work. The scientists were used to dealing with people with brain deficits, in that the traumas they had suffered left them less able in certain areas than the ‘normal’ person. As a choreographer, I deal with the opposite ‘problem.’ Dancers have an excess of proprioception compared to the norm. So we had a common yardstick against which we could measure our curiosities and inform each others’ ideas. Also, in choreographing, I realised that I work very similarly to a scientist testing an idea. I gather information and create an output which is simply a stage in an ongoing experiment. Scientists are by necessity incredibly creative. They work with abstraction, constantly redefining their own terms in order to define their future. I learnt a great deal during my research at Cambridge [McGregor was appointed Research Fellow at the Experimental Psychology department of Cambridge University]. I even ended up doing some teaching there, thanks to the Head of Anthropology, who observed my research and extracted some incredible insights regarding collaboration between interdisciplinary groups. We all did a lot of writing, with our own emphases. For example, one of the stroke specialists published some important discoveries regarding the rehabilitation of stroke victims extracted from our collaborations with the dancers.

Has this enthusiastic response by the scientific community been echoed in the dance world’s responses to the work?
We have always struggled with the expectations of the dance sector when viewing our experiments with technology. And yet I am determined to continue to challenge the intelligence of the debate around such things and hopefully build the understanding that the work communicates beyond what is grasped immediately on stage. With AtaXia we had some fantastic debate but there are still those skeptics who believe that this engagement with science is inappropriate and opportunistic.

I hope we can access some more of your ideas in this area in Australia.

Certainly with the workshop I am doing with you at Critical Path, we will be talking a great deal as well as experimenting with some of the choreographic tools I have developed over the course of these productions. I am always very excited about new perspectives and throwing open the work to new minds and I very much look forward to the perspectives of the Australian choreographers, critics, audiences and perhaps even scientists and technologists.

Wayne McGregor will hold a 2-day masterclass for choreographers in New South Wales at The Drill in Sydney, March 11-12, as part of the Critical Path program of choreographic research. For more information on this contact Sophie Travers at [email protected]. For further details of Random performances in Melbourne and in Adelaide visit Arts Projects Australia,

RealTime issue #71 Feb-March 2006 pg. 4

© Sophie Travers; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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