Choreographer Wayne McGregor likes to keep his dancers on their toes. His works are notoriously difficult, forcing even the most trained dancers into unnatural angles, contorting their bodies in ways that seem nearly impossible. In Autobiography, performed during schrit_tmacher festival at Parkstad Limburg Theaters Heerlen on 10 March, McGregor ups the ante even more.

Except for the beginning and ending, the piece itself is never the same. For Autobiography McGregor has created 23 separate volumes, and roughly fifteen of these are shown each performance. Which ones, and in what order they are performed, is decided by a computer algorithm, which in turn is based on McGregor’s own genetic code.

But that’s not all the computer decides. It also determines if a volume is performed front to back, or back to front. And it assigns the roles, plus which roles are performed by what gender. Which basically means the dancers need to know every single part. According to McGregor, about 24.000 different permutations are possible. The dancers know the exact line-up about two days in advance.

Autobiography was created in 2017, in a run-up to the company’s 25th anniversary in 2018, though it is not autobiographical in any conventional sense. Anyone expecting a danced story of McGregor’s life will be disappointed. The piece consists of a diverse selection of dances, loosely held together by a number and a title (which are shown above the stage). As it is, it functions as a great calling card – or an 80-minute demo if you will – for Studio Wayne McGregor and the company of dancers. In the opening act, called Avatar, a solitary figure (this evening, male), appears from the mist. He moves in zen-like concentration, alternating slow, organic movements with sharp angles.

This combination of soft and hard, of languid motion and lightning speed are exemplary features of McGregor’s work. The next volumes showcase his different dancing backgrounds. There are definite Latin and ballroom dance influences in the second part, with the dancers strutting around as proud and sensual peacocks. Two volumes later, when every dancer gets a chance to show off, we get classical ballet inspired moves by a female dancer (McGregor is resident choreographer for The Royal Ballet).

His dancers are almost always in motion, constantly walking onto and off the stage, pairing off in twos and threes, and uncoupling the next moment. Everything is in flux, spurred on by the mesmerizing electronic soundscape by female composer Jlin, using organic sounds, electronic beats, snippets of dialogue and terrified screams. She and McGregor won the 2018 Gross Family Prize for an outstanding new collaboration between dance and music (the album can be bought online). Sometimes she even performs live, though sadly, not tonight.

Each of the volumes that is performed is about five minutes long. Even if something isn’t quite to your taste, or feels like more of the same – which did happen once or twice during the evening – it won’t take long. But the availability of just a selection of the volumes, and not all, means there is an unavoidable loss as well. Every performance is a first, but viewers will also always miss out on something.

I wouldn’t want people to miss out on the volume called Sleep (number 6), with its optimal use of lighting (Lucy Carter) and award-winning set design (Ben Cullens Williams), in which three dancers desperately claw their way through and under 28 triangular shapes that have come crashing down.

On the other hand, anyone watching without prior knowledge about the piece wouldn’t know what they were  missing. In this sense, Autobiography works like life itself: we can never know what would have happened on the road not taken. Of course, in real life, we would not be ordered around by a dispassionate machine. Using a computer algorithm to make all the decisions is an interesting conceit, but it also makes the piece feel a bit sterile and random (sidenote: McGregor’s studio was once called Random Dance). There is no artistic reasoning behind one volume following the next; the order comes about because an algorithm made it so. The lack of a clear drive, made many of the pieces blend together in my mind.

The dancers are definitely the beating heart of the piece, basically hurtling themselves into the unknown each time the piece is performed. While their fate is in the hands of an algorithm, they are more than mere cogs in a wheel.


Seen: 10 March, schrit_tmacher festival at Parkstad Limburg Theaters Heerlen.