Not so random choreography


Alvaro Dule and Anna Nowak in Wayne McGregor’s “Atomos” at San Francisco Performances. Photo by Ravi Deepres.

When Wayne McGregor brought his company to San Francisco this past January, they presented an invitation only–workshop on choreography. This was in addition to the performance of Atomos, which was held at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts under the aegis of San Francisco Performances. I didn’t attend Atomos though I had reviewed the work at its premiere in London in 2013. (That review can be found online at

Since that 2013 premiere McGregor has come forward with more information about Atomos in particular, most of which can be applied to what he showed at his choreography workshop.

“The title comes from the initial idea that McGregor began with: “I wanted to make a piece which was kind of about uncuttable structures – I wondered how I could make a whole series of little atoms of physicality that could be put together in a really interesting way. And so that’s how I called it Atomos.”  As part of the creation of the piece, the dancers (and McGregor too) wore biometric bands, wearable technology that would give them real-time information about how their body was reacting to the movement. “We took that maths, basically, all those numbers,” McGregor says, “and created architectural objects with them: foam-like structures that the dancers could improvise with … And then we took those structures away, and the language in some way resulted from that.” Another inspiration was the choreographer’s favorite film, Blade Runner – which, via computer analysis, translated color, motion, and tone into a kind of vocabulary of movement that the dancers responded to. But for all of the technological prompts for inspiration, the resulting dance has its own, very human language.” (KDFC Radio)

McGregor brought four of his dancers to the workshop to aid in his demonstration. He began by describing that he would start with something that he could visualize – his house/ home, for example. That visualized thing would then become “the mental framework”, or “point of departure”, for a series of movements that he would share with his dancers in real time. He could likewise take music or sound and convert that to an image that would then become the point of departure.

He makes no decisions about the quality of the movements that come out of his kinesthetic response to this image. Rather, he works with how he and his dancers respond to those forms, building sets of movements that become the material he works with. He collects the movements, in a way, and puts “the forms in front of me like objects of clay”.

He demonstrated this by giving one of his dancers, Jess Wright, a combination of movements. The combination is complex and delivered quickly verbally by McGregor. Since his dancers are familiar with McGregor’s work and consummately skilled they are able to grasp the combination immediately and repeat it. He asks the three other dancers to use some part of the combination to create their own combinations. He gives a second dancer, Travis Clausen-Knight, a second combination. Where he gave Jess the combination by saying the steps and occasionally dancing them, he dances the entire combination for Travis.

There is a difference in the way these combinations of steps are kinesthetically reproduced by the dancers: McGregor has an unusual body type, thin and sinuous, very loose at the joints. What Jess and Travis — she with a more compact body, he with a more compact and muscularly knit body – sketch back is just that: a sketch. This is also true for the other dancers. There is a transformation that occurs in the very portrayal of the same steps. As David Kirsh, the Professor of Cognitive Science at U.C. San Diego and R-Research collaborator who observed the workshop from on-stage later noted, each body has its own signature. And built into this body difference is physical reinterpretation that can lead the movements in various directions.

McGregor added into the mix an additional set of images to kinetically reinterpret. He gave each dancer a word – green, lost, star, grain, root – and asked them to respond to those words physically. The words he cited were not just objects, one is a quality, one a state of being. Each dancer immediately formed a combination of four to eight steps. McGregor then set the four dancers in action by changing the timing of each dancer, the staggered repetitions and responses to his choreography and to each other’s choreography created a dense field of motion and movement.

As the audience could see: a lot of dance material had been created. And as McGregor pointed out if you do this kind of collaboration for twelve weeks, you have “hours and hours of stuff”. Kirsh also pointed out that this kind of interaction and collaboration creates a “stochastic algorithm” – a means by which randomness can be inserted and maintained within the making of choreography. “Randomness,” he holds “is an energetic addition to the process.” It is also a means by which newness can be added to the creative process, because information – in this case, differences of body, movement and response – comes from outside the individual in a continuous cycle of new movement, response, and reinterpretation.