Wayne McGregor is like the ultimate dinner-party host. This giant of the international arts scene has contacts the world over and uses them to draw together eclectic, exciting, unpredictable combinations for his productions.
He’s worked with producer Mark Ronson; post-minimalist German composer Max Richter; and artist, designer and G-Star Raw executive creative director Aitor Throup.
And now he’s bringing Tree of Codes, his 2015 multidisciplinary dance work with equally hyperventilation-inducing artists Olafur Eliasson and Jamie xx to Sydney Festival.
But first to the man himself.
Founding director of the 25-year-old dance company Wayne McGregor, he is also resident choreographer at The Royal Ballet (RB) in London and a dual Olivier Award-winning artist whose work extends into film (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them 2, Sing and the upcoming Mary Queen of Scots starring Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan).
He has a large and hungry intellect that manifests into works such as Autobiography, his 2017 production inspired by extracting his own DNA; and 2016’s Multiverse for the RB with music by Steve Reich and Pakistani artist Rashid Rana that explored ideas of genesis, repeating histories and possible futures.
A conversation with the 47 year old can take you from AI to genetic sequencing to mathematical structures and everything in-between. Today we’re discussing the Droste effect, otherwise known as mise en abyme, the effect of a picture appearing within itself again and again.
McGregor’s work was inspired by Tree of Codes, Jonathan Safran Foer’s “book sculpture”, itself inspired by Bruno Schulz’s 1934 Street of Crocodiles. Foer’s experimental novella was created by literally cutting words from Schulz’s text to create a new narrative.
“I went online and read how the book was made and kind of became obsessed with it,” McGregor says. “The novel provided so many interesting points of departure.”
Eliasson thought so too. Well-known for installations such as the 40-metre-high New York City Waterfalls, Tree of Codes challenges the Icelandic-Danish artist in new ways, building on his background as a break-dancing champion.
It was a similar story for Jamie xx. Better known for his popular London band the xx, contemporary dance represented a step in a new direction.
After an initial meeting, the three creatives went away and worked independently before pulling Tree of Codes together as a whole. McGregor choreographed each of the pages, as each was so inherently different. “Sometimes we just took the words as they were, sometimes we tried to work with the meaning, sometimes we worked with the words that weren’t there, sometimes with the spaces,” he says.
The score is rich and multi-layered. It combines electronica with classical piano samples, vocals and thumping beats. Eliasson’s magical set uses mirrors and lights to create an ever-evolving landscape in which flowers bloom, colours shine and the dancers’ images are refracted around the space.
Although technology has enabled McGregor and his creative time to work remotely, he is firmly of the opinion dance is a collaboration; the sum of its parts.
“I’m very interested in working with artists, composers, visual artists who are alive and in the room with you, I think that’s very exciting,” he says. “I like to be pushed and challenged, working outside my own inherited frameworks or habits and working with artists who think differently to you is one way of doing that.”
Then of course there are the dancers themselves, a diverse group from all over the word. For the Sydney season two guest stars from the RB – including principal artist Edward Watson, whose performance in Brisbane of McGregor’s Woolf Works with the RB last July was lauded as “heart-stopping.”
“We are an international company and that’s part of the thinking: if you’re training and thinking differently through the body you’re going to offer something different to the process.”
The audience, too, has a role to play. As the lights, score and chorography draws it into the piece, the mirrors reflect it back so it appears its members are in the work. “From that point of view it’s a total art work: is it dance? Is it visual art? What is it? And that sits well with our audience,” McGregor says.
Tree of Codes has had seasons in New York, London and Paris with one audience member saying it was perfect for audiences who don’t usually go to dance. Insult or astute observation?
“I think the work repositions what a dance performance might be,” responds McGregor. “Visually it’s very rich, emotionally it touches you, the music and physical action makes you want to dance. You couldn’t just call it dance, it’s more than that.”
Tree of Codes will be performed for Sydney Festival at Darling Harbour Theatre from January 6 to 10.