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Wayne McGregor | Random Dance: FAR – Playhouse Theatre, Liverpool

Direction/Choreography: Wayne McGregor

Music: Ben Frost

Reviewer: Peter Jacobs

[rating:4.5]

Wayne McGregor founded Random Dance in 1992 and created such an impression with his developing distinctive style that in 2002 Random Dance were invited to become a Resident Company at Sadler’s Wells. In 2006 he became Resident Choreographer at the Royal Ballet and in 2011 was awarded the CBE. While he regularly works around the world and at the Royal Ballet, Random Dance remains his ‘laboratory’, where he can experiment with his unique, conceptual approach to choreography – involving an active interest in neuroscience and use of multimedia – with his own rather extraordinary dancers and creative team.

FAR is inspired by Roy Porter’s book Flesh in the Age of Reason (hence FAR), which examines how perceptions of the relationship between the mind and the body changed during the Enlightenment as science and philosophy found new ways to examine the corporeal and question the spiritual. These are ideas that connect with McGregor’s own interests in how the activity of the mind is reflected in the body.

FAR, which was first created in 2010 by means of an intense ten-week research period, is classic McGregor. The choreography, devised through task-based improvisation with the dancers, is incredibly fast, detailed and precise. McGregor utilises the techniques of classical ballet and completely deconstructs them, appropriating gesture and using extreme hyperextension, broken, twisted lines, geometry, asymmetry and speed to create a distinctive vocabulary of movement that is at once clinical and expressive.

One of the visual clues for the creation of the piece was paintings by Francis Bacon; you can see the influence of his visceral, animalistic, distorted manifestations of the body in the shaping and rapid fluidity of the movement. The key element of FAR’s staging is a massive lighting panel, which raises and lowers during the performance to reveal the dancers, or a bank of massive stage lights: redefining the space. The individual points of light create patterns, numbers, a flickering backdrop, or pulses in time with the music, both interacting with and prompting the dancers – almost an eleventh dancer more than a set. The stripped-down set and costumes are offset by shadowy lighting or warm orange colourwashes (lighting design by Lucy Carter) and the use of fire and smoke. The strange thing is that the Enlightenment inspiration for the piece and these touches, along with the more classical, sung elements of Ben Frost’s score combine to create an impression that this ground-breaking piece of post-classical dance is also a glimpse of something from that 18th century period. The combinations of dancers, the use of tableaux, structured entrances and exits, the half-light, smoke and flame, create a sense of scenes of lovers, servants, street life, social behaviour. Somehow the dancers’ relationships, the staging and choreography perfectly encapsulate the mix of elegance and brutality of that questioning age of art and new scientific investigation. It’s strange how something so apparently abstract and technical on the surface can be so rich in imagery and narrative implication.

McGregor’s company of ten dancers are wonderful. Highly-skilled, physically and emotionally present and expressive, clearly wholly engaged with the work they helped create. Paolo Mangiola is a strong presence throughout, and his opening duet with Daniela Neugebauer is entrancing in its precision and engagement. Michael John Harper has an extraordinary lithe, athletic fluidity. Davide di Pretoro and Benjamin Ord are more classically elegant. Fukiko Takase has the most remarkable flexibility, hyperextending beyond what looks possible; Jessica Wright and Anna Novak both have a gutsy physical presence, far from frail ballerinas. Catarina Carvalho is compelling and Alexander Whitley is simply one of the most beautiful male dancers I’ve ever seen, full of elegant, easy strength: completely watchable.

The only slight issue with FAR is the music. Ben Frost’s mixed classical/ambient/electronic score – which was created alongside the piece as part of the process – is delightful in the operatic sections and thrilling and ominous at others but although it threatens to erupt into something truly exciting it always falls back into being a wall of (sometimes uncomfortable) sound. The music is the only thing that just stops FAR from making the perfect connection between the head and heart, that doesn’t quite allow the emotional circuit to connect; although I could argue that the white noise of the soundtrack is part of the distorting lens than allows the audience to see flickering ghosts of the past in this modern work.

If you like innovative, intelligent, challenging choreography, beautifully staged and performed by incredible dancers then you would be advised not to miss FAR, or indeed anything by Wayne McGregor.

Photo: Ravi Deepres

Runs until 25 October

 

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