Part of: TORUS
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Interview

Interview: Wayne McGregor

by Bella Gladman on 15 May 2020

'Balance isn't about holding on to your centre, and forcing yourself to stand on one leg. A good expression of balance is when you're walking down the street, and you trip, and you're able to right yourself: balance is alive, it’s a dynamic thing.'

The legendary choreographer in conversation with Bella Gladman on his work on TORUS and how Fredrik Tjærandsen's wearable balloons redefine the dance-making process. The conversation explores McGregor's approach to creative work, in which dance is an ecosystem and experience is the most important form of knowledge.

'Balance isn't about holding on to your centre, and forcing yourself to stand on one leg. A good expression of balance is when you're walking down the street, and you trip, and you're able to right yourself: balance is alive, it’s a dynamic thing.'

An excerpt from TORUS

BG: How did you come to be involved in TORUS?

WM: I got an email from Nick [Knight], which said: 'I'm thinking about this really amazing film, with these fantastic, interesting clothes. If I send you a link to them, would you be interested in choreographing?’ and I said, ‘Send along!’

I was immediately taken by Fredrik’s work, because bodies are so prevalent in it; bodies are important. But also there's something very ‘other', there's something very speculative future about it - it’s as if we have to carry our own clean air system with us in the future. It seemed like an interesting moment to explore that.

BG: Talk me through how you approached this project.

WM: We looked at everything, all the links and stuff [about Tjærandsen's work] that we could find online, and then we all had a meeting together at SHOWstudio, to explore what was possible. I hadn't understood initially that there were so many different versions of the balloon clothes. I decided that we needed to have sessions before the actual shoot, where, first of all, we got the dancers used to wearing [the balloons] because they are a very interesting challenge for dancers who practice a physical virtuosity. I also wanted to explore a language with the balloons, develop some vocabulary that we could work from. Not set phrases, but behaviours, that would say something about the balloons and how they affect the body.

BG: Typically, when one thinks of a dancer's costume, like a leotard, it’s skin-tight so you can move really freely. There's a skin-tight aspect to the balloons, but there's also this extended balloon space, with its own air vibrations. What were the challenges with creating beautiful movement within the constraints of a balloon?

WM: You're right that lots of dance costumes are made so dancers can perform most freely. But if you think about the history of physical costume, and look at say, Oskar Schlemmer and the theatre of the Bauhaus, and the way in which his costumes gave dancers a different physical propensity to move; there's a whole legacy and lineage of body-morphing costumes, where bodies have to find a different language to move in.

Dancers work to find how they can move most freely, with the technique that they have learned and practiced for years and years. And to be, all of a sudden, encumbered by objects that change the way in which you can control your body… how do you create a flow system, but in a costume that makes the body misbehave? How do you create an elegance, or physical beauty, with a costume that is always taking you off balance? That's part of the vernacular of Fredrik's project.

Dancers spend years learning how to balance and be poised, but wearing those balloons, it's a live flow system in there; a weight that’s always mobile. It destabilises this anchor that a dancer has. What’s even more tricky about this is that the dancers can’t fall over, put their hands down, because they can’t burst the balloon. Normally it’s fantastic in a rehearsal when dancers fall over, because they’re testing their limits. So there’s this really weird psychological dimension to [dancing in a balloon] where you’re trying to physically misbehave, and test the limits of what you normally do, but you can’t fall down, because you’ll pop the balloon.

How do you create an elegance, or physical beauty, with a costume that is always taking you off balance?

BG: For dancers that have spent time learning and trusting themselves–having an awareness of where every single part of their body is to create the perfect shape–the balloons add an extra challenge to retaining bodily awareness.

WM: There's a sense that dancers use a lot called proprioception: the sense of yourself. When you extend your arms, you're in a space, a kinosphere. You feel the space that you're carrying with you, which is just beyond what the body is. What these balloons do is give you, or describe for you, a new kinosphere. You have a sense of where the balloon ends, but you have no sense of being able to control it. You understand where the end is, but you can’t actuate the end, you can't use the end to your purposes. Added to that, dancers have to find their own unique way of moving in their unique balloon, because none of the balloons are the same. They’re different shapes, different weights, and have different relationships of where the balloon sits on the body - are they sitting on the hip or at the knee, or higher up? Is there a lot of volume above them?

BG: How have the dancers responded to wearing these costumes?

WM: These physical extensions are very volatile. Some dancers respond to that brilliantly, and enjoy the play of it, and for some dancers, it really stresses them out because they can't control what it is that they're doing. Also, think about the psychosomatic, psychological aspect of being in a balloon. Some dancers were wearing balloons which popped after having been inflated for about an hour. You know what it's like when you expect a balloon to pop - you have a physical feeling to it already. But when you're inside a balloon popping, that's a very different thing.

Your biometric data is being challenged by this latex structure. There's a sense of claustrophobia in those balloons, because you've got limited amount of air, and it’s running out. Wearing a balloon affects the chemistry of your body: you sweat more than you do normally, so your feet don’t have the same traction with the floor. These physiological changes also factor in to what you can make [in dance].

BG: Balloons can often be quite comical, fun, childlike or silly. I wondered how you approached that: were you trying to avoid that silliness? If so, how did you get around that? Or was that ‘silly’ factor actually something that you factored in?

WM: Some of them are slightly funnier than others. When you see a balloon and a pair of legs sticking out, it brings a smile to your face, right? But then you see a contrast between this translucent upper body that’s slightly blurry or out of focus, in contrast with hard graphic legs. All of a sudden, you're in a different place and you don't think it's quite so funny.

The main job was to try and work out how we could express something of the feeling of what it was like to be in one of those balloons. Dancing is an expression of interior made exterior. It's not just about throwing shapes. How do you build a phrase together, that says something about the balloon, but also says something about the body inside the balloon, and what that feels like?

BG: The balloon creates a barrier; as a viewer you can end up stopping and relating only with the balloon, and almost forget that there is someone inside, inhabiting it. It seems that the balloons’ translucency makes the presence of interior and exterior very identifiable, because you can see inside and outside at the same time. And then there's the exterior and interior of the dancer, mentally and physically.

WM: So true. What’s interesting is the fear involved. For duets, dancers are used to working out where the end of another body is, and being able to partner that other body in really complex movements. They can see an arm move very quickly towards them, and they can grab it and do an under curve, do something with it - that's part of the basic language of being a dancer. But now, when you've got two spheres, and where you're not quite sure how your sphere is going to behave and where it ends, and you have this other radical sphere moving close to you… we had a lot of collisions, and quite a few pops because of it.

Therefore, we had to try and work out what the grammar is where we could find proximity which does not necessarily mean closeness? This is another redefinition of how you make a dance. How do you build a relationship between multiple bodies, but within these spheres, when you can't touch? Is it about focus? Is it about reach? Is it about a physical empathy, where you're sharing a physical dynamic?

BG: I like the idea of finding that intimacy, but with distance already enforced. Intimacy that goes beyond the barriers that have been put in place.

WM: The surface of those balloons - they're like skin. If you think you think about your own skin, it's your biggest sense organ on the body. One of the things that's really important about dance making is quality of touch: What do you feel when you have one skin sensor next to another skin sensor? What is that haptic information that is priming you to feel a certain way?

A balloon is a skin in which your body rests which takes up a different volume and holds a different sensorial feeling. I noticed, as we've been filming, that the skin quality of the work is really, really beautiful. It's of body. It's an extended body, rather than a body in something.

BG: Returning to what you mentioned at the beginning, about the idea of carrying your own breathing system. I was thinking about the body going beyond what it has been for hundreds of years, and needing to be extended in order to live in the polluted world that is emerging. I love the idea of body extension: adding to the body, rather than removing, dividing, or separating bodies.

WM: I love that! With astronauts, we’re used to the idea of having a hermetically sealed bubble in which a person can breathe. But what's beautiful about Fredrik's work is that there's this really extended humanist space in which you can live. The air inside is precious, it’s being used up. And by giving it some limits or boundaries, we start to realise that, actually, our clean air is under pressure, our water supplies are under pressure - we have finite resources to support the living system, which happens to be bodies. That's the poetry in the work that is very resonant both of and for our times.

How do you build a relationship between multiple bodies, but within these spheres, when you can't touch?

BG: Like memento mori - cherishing what we have in the moment, in being reminded that they will end. It’s the threat of loss that makes things much more present. Regarding the choreography, what was the brief or instructions to the dancers?

WM: Choreography always starts off with a question: ‘How can you…?’ It's not about me saying, 'This is how we’re going to operate,' but more, 'How can you solve a problem within this system?' It's really as much about the dancers authoring the material with prompts and cues, as it is about me and my composition. The language of the dance is co-generated, co-authored.

The first question was: ‘How can you move in this new ecosystem that you carry with you? Is it possible? Is it impossible? What's possible? What's not possible? Explore it for me!’

Then it was: ‘What does love look like in one of those balloon systems? What does violence look like?’ We've only just touched the beginning of that; if we were making a longer form piece, it’d be something we’d really want to get inside.

And then the third thing, which we would do more of if we had more of the balloons, is: ‘How far can you push the language before the system decays or explodes? What are the boundaries of the balloons before they pop?’ We would need way, way, way more balloons!

It’s sitting in this new ecosystem exploring how it works; then looking at emotional traits, conversations, and dialogue in that system; and then breaking the rules of the system and, therefore, breaking the boundaries that have been set. But the risk of it, all the time, is how far can you go before it bursts? It’s not clear cut: we’ve had moments where the dancers fell over and the balloons didn't pop, and moments where the dancers moved very, very minimally, and the balloons did pop.

BG: It’s interesting the use of ‘ecosystem’ to describe a dancer wearing a balloon: ecosystems are living, mutually beneficial, cyclical.

WM: That's what dancing is, for me. Take balance, for example. Balance isn't about holding on to your centre, and forcing yourself to stand on one leg. A good expression of balance is when you're walking down the street, and you trip, and you're able to right yourself: balance is alive, it’s a dynamic thing.

Dancing is improvisation. It’s making real time decisions about how the body is moving. It's not repeating decisions that have been pre-choreographed. What's great about the balloons is that you have no option but to stay in a live improvisatory state, because your body has to feed back, in real time, what's happening. You can start something off, you can initiate something, but then you get that body feedback, and you have to do something else. You might be able to stabilise it for a little bit, but as soon as you do that, it sets up another physical challenge. So it's like having a partner to choreograph with, giving you stuff to respond to, that you're responding to, and giving them stuff in return.

An excerpt from TORUS.

BG: There’s an analogy to artificial intelligence, specifically machine learning. A dancer starts something off, and then the balloon builds upon it so the initial impetus is transformed. You worked with Google Arts and Culture on a project that was about reassembling a never-before-seen dance from existing choreography and movements. Dance is using emerging computer technologies. Computers typically deal with numerical data, with written information, but muscle memories work differently. I wondered what dance practice says about how we organise information, and how we respond to information we are given or exposed to.

WM: The Google Arts & Culture project is fascinating, because what it's doing is creating a novel phrase that’s never been danced before, but in the style of that particular dancer - that's the really extraordinary thing. And one of the reasons I decide to take on a project rather than another one, is enjoying being in the role of student, in a situation where we’re learning. I know when we come out of the balloons and start to make vocabulary for another piece, we have the history of what it felt like to be in that recursive structure with the balloon: that’s really exciting and vivid for us, as dancers. We needed a prop, or an ecosystem to explore that knowledge, and then embody it; the sensations are stored in the body, and we are able to recall them. What we're trying to do all the time is find new ways in which we can challenge the system, but then have the ability to recall the feeling of those sensations when we're making new dances.

BG: I was wondering what you'd be taking from this balloon experience into future projects.

WM: As a choreographer, whose job is to watch and to notice things in bodies, I've noticed more potential in the dancers to work in a different way. The balloons challenge them to do it and they've solved the problem. That is a vein of really interesting physical information I've never seen before. I've seen it, I know they can do it. How do we get back to feeling some of that? Once you've experienced something as a dancer, or in watching dancers, you can't un-experience it or un-see it. It's information that you possess: that's what experience is. It's so rare to have a very provocative physical experience. And although it’s upsetting and exhausting and tiring, it is a whole vein of language that you can call on. You can go, 'Oh, I had that feeling at that time, how do I produce more of that?'

BG: How to manifest a feeling without having to recreate the same conditions.

WM: You don't need the balloons to do it! You might be able to take some of the language that you developed and say, 'Well, what does that look like in a structural form with three dancers?' You can't do that right now with these balloons - one day, maybe Fred will think of a way of doing that, but right now you can't. But you have had the experience of working with a balloon, which is way better and more inspiring than never having had the balloon, and trying to imagine it. These physical experiences are priming the imagination, and the physical sense system to be able to do things that it's never experienced before.

BG: My final question: you’ve worked with a lot of designers over time; including the recent ballet collaboration with Manfred Thierry Mugler; and also with Gareth Pugh. What about fashion draws you to it, as a choreographer?

WM: There's a bravery in fashion that so many other art forms don't have. I feel that a lot of people who are working in fashion really feel that there are no limits and are willing to push and test expectations. Also, the thing about fashion is that it needs some form of body - whatever that body is. Designers are already thinking about physical principles, so they're very aligned to the way which you think, choreographically. Even though they might be very different end results, some of the central questions are quite similar. The language between designer and choreographer is an effortless one. I love that designers do things that challenge you, that you look at and feel awe and wonderment. The potential of fashion is that there's still magic in the world. The designers that I'm attracted to working with are designers that I feel have that larger vision.

The thing about fashion is that it needs some form of body - whatever that body is.

BG: You spoke about how wearing one of Fredrik Tjærandsen’s balloons changes the way that you experience your body and the world, and also how other people can experience you. It seems they really highlight how fashion works. Take wearing high heels - they change your posture, how your weight is distributed, and how you walk. They change how people view you: that physical difference adds a sexual element; an element of power. And wearing heels, you’re taller, so you see the world differently. I think it’s great that, in dance, you are able to summon an alternative reality through its practice.

WM: If you think about it, all our relationships are body to body, body to object: these create experiences. I think it would be amazing if Fredrik wanted to create a version of his balloons for the public, where they could go into those balloons. Again, once you've experienced it, you can't un-see it or un-feel it. Wearing those balloons taps into a whole range of potentials and possibilities that haven't yet existed. That's what I love about working with people who are working in fashion: potential seems limitless.

BG: The world's your oyster, I suppose - to use a horrific cliché.

WM: I've noticed that with Nick [Knight], the process of making a film is very playful. It's very experimental, it's not restrictive. It's 'How about…?’ ‘Can we..?’ ‘Let’s try…!’ It's not, 'We are going to do this, this, this. This is the setup. We've drawn the storyboard.' It's not rigid in that way. It's just a group of people working interestingly, together, and something emerges, that is just a collection of those decisions at that time. It's around a conversation, in this case, brought to us by the potential of Fredrik's balloons. We start from that point and go: 'In our discipline, crossing over with yours, we might invent this together.' It's only one set of constellations. I can think of hundreds of others. But for this moment of time, it's this one. That's very beautiful, it’s very precious, and that's why we're very excited to have done this.

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