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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

How Wayne will change the Royal Ballet

By Norman Lebrecht / December 5, 2006

He is a bad boy, a ballet outsider, a choreographer who declined the Billy Elliot route of tutu classes and worked his moves on kids in an East London estate to find the shapes and rhythms that give dance its dizzy relevance in the frenzy of modern life.

He is, in almost every respect, antipodal to the traditions and purpose of the Royal Ballet, which sets the tone and stately progress of British dance and relies upon hand-reared products of its own Royal Ballet School for its future. Wayne McGregor wants none of that.

He boasts that he has never attended a ballet class in his life and is happier on a Harry Potter film set than in a crowd at the barre. Yet when McGregor, 36, was announced this weekend as resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet not one plummy voice was raised in dissent and the buzz in the wings was electric. The instant feeling was that the Royal had made its most decisive and exciting move in 17 years, since the death backstage of Sir Kenneth McMillan had left it bereft of choreographic leadership.

McGregor took Covent Garden by storm last month with Chroma, a short piece for five couples in flesh-coloured underwear set to music by the White Stripes (in garish Joby Talbot orchestrations), with Alina Cojocaru and Edward Watson in the lead roles. Topping a triple bill with another fine British piece by Christopher Weeldon and Balanchine’s Four Temperaments, a modern classic, Chroma not only held its own against strong competition: it suggested an alternative dimension. Everything about it challenged the status quo. Where other choreographers made movement, McGregor seemed to be searching for stasis against music that surged and ebbed like caffeine. Against the dancer’s reach for beauty, McGregor invoked angularity.

The atmosphere changed that night. Part of the audience came from clubland and the dancers were beside themselves with possibilities glimpsed and half-realised. Everything in the body language clicked and it took a matter of days rather than the usual months and years to reach agreement that McGregor would be the company’s chief inspiration, heir apparent to the grand tradition – the witty realism of Frederick Ashton and McMillan’s dramatic couplings.

‘It happened so fast,’ says Monica Mason, the Royal Ballet director. ‘I had been thinking about the position, putting out feelers, but nothing was quite right for us. Then Wayne came in. I knew about his wide interests, his curiosity about the modern world. And he is such a pleasure to work with: he speaks so inspiringly about what it is to be creative. I decided it was time not to be in boxes. I want to look forward.’

A McMillan loyalist who took charge four years ago after the dismissal of the Australian Ross Stretton, Mason has always pledged to be daring while persisting with a programme of conventional work. This was her chance to change the course of the Royal Ballet. ‘When I spoke to the company, I told them: I’m not about to jettison every narrative and classical ballet now that Wayne is here. But you challenged me to find challenges for you, and this is what I have done.’ Days after the announcement, she accepts that this may be the most important moment for the Royal Ballet since McMillan died.

Not that Wayne McGregor is much fussed by venerable antecedents. ‘When I was young,’ he told my colleague Sarah Frater recently. ‘I loved John Travolta. I thought Saturday Night Fever was groovy. As a kid, I wanted to learn ballroom and Latin American dancing. I thought I might study drama at university.’

Growing up in Stockport, on the outskirts of Manchester, he won a place at University College Bretton Hall in Leeds studying choreography from an academic perspective and finished up in the Jose Limon school in New York. ‘I didn't really understand the way the dance world works,’ he says.

What he knew was the way his own body functioned. ‘I have very long limbs, but no flexibility in the joints, and when I was dancing I made a style for myself that suited my body. I was into techno, clubby music. In the clubs, people danced in a robotics style, atomising their bodies to the music.’ It was not beauty but body rhythms in the urban jungle that powered his choreographic mind.

Back home, he got a job on an Arts Council youth project at the forgotten end of London. By 22 he was head of his own dance company, Random Within the year he was appointed choreographer at The Place, the sharp end of London’s dance scene; inside a decade, Random was resident at Sadler’s Wells, Britain’s premier dance house.

to choreograph The Woman in White and by Hollywood to chart the moves for Harry Potter, The Goblet of Fire. ‘Warner Bros. asked me to work with 400 children and I said I didn't want stage school kids. I wanted children from east London who hadn't danced before. And Warner Bros. said, "Er, we're not sure." Eventually, I got them, many from my old schools. I think you can say it changed the demographic of Hogwarts.’

This, however, is just the day job. McGregor is unusual in the dance world for the breadth of his interests and ambitions. This summer, he directed an opera, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, at La Scala, Milan, in a deliberately provocative minimalist style. He has created art installations at London’s South Bank and the Pompidou Centre. A keen interest in the malfunctions of the human physique has taken him into a research study at the Neuroscience Department at Cambridge. He once attempted to make a ballet about a woman with ataxia, a condition manifested in clumsy, disruptive motions.

Swan Lake diehards deplore what he does as physiotherapy rather than choreography but younger audiences adore it and the dancers are enthralled as much by his range of ideas as by the physical opportunities he helps them to discover. Beneath the idea of Chroma, he explained, ‘there's a whole philosophy of psycho-chromatics, and how colour evokes certain emotions - when you see flesh tones, you see something innately human.’

He appears to have struck an instant rapport with Monica Mason, for whom he expresses ‘great respect’ and she has tied his contract to her projected retirement date in 2010 so that they can work in harness fashioning a very different future for the Royal Ballet. She may appoint another choreographer to work on traditional narrative, but the creative source will be Wayne McGregor.

The world as seen by Wayne McGregor is a world apart from the warm, centrally heated classrooms of the Royal Ballet School and the dainty interval sandwiches of Covent Garden. It is a mindset that engages with the real world of conflict and abandonment, of cruelty and technological revolution, of commonality and infinite human difference. It is a new world for the Royal Ballet, a renaissance by any other name.

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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