Wayne McGregor has a fascinating life story. Born in 1970 in Stockport, he did ballroom and Latin and disco dancing before studying contemporary dance, and founding his own dance company in 1992. Since then he has also become resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet, been commissioned by companies all over the world, won strings of awards, worked on Harry Potter films and Thom Yorke videos, participated in science research programmes in California and Cambridge, and set up studios in the Indian Ocean and in East London.
None of that appears in his teasingly titled 2017 dancework Autobiography. What fascinated McGregor’s characteristically enquiring mind was a different kind of story altogether, one that was no less – and perhaps far more – formative of his life: his own genetic code.
Where did that idea spring from? As his company was celebrating its 25th season in 2017, McGregor says, he found himself “looking backwards and forwards at the same time. I wanted to make a piece that was both personal and utilised my developing interest in genetics.” He had his own genome analysed by a research lab and, drawing inspiration from the splicing of science and story in Siddhartha Mukherjee’s acclaimed 2016 book The Gene: An Intimate History, he used the resulting data and patterns, alongside more traditional life-writing prompts such as photographs, objects or texts with a personal meaning, to start work on Autobiography.
That sounds like a lot to hold on to – and indeed it is. But McGregor, ever the analyst, breaks the piece down for me into three constituent components, each based on the Greek etymology of the title:
auto: the self, in the form of personal histories and reflections
bio: his own genetic code, as the basis of his life
graphy: dance as a kind of writing, making marks in real time
And spelled out like that, I can get a handle on it.
It’s the middle section – genetics – that really informs the deep structure of the piece. Just as the human genome is made from 23 pairs of chromosomes, so McGregor created 23 distinct episodes, each one drawing on those life-writing prompts. Like genetic material shuffled and recombined, those episodes are then selected and sequenced by a computer algorithm, so that every performance of Autobiography is ordered differently, with only the first and last sections remaining as constants. That means the number of possible versions vastly outstrips the number of performances it could ever have. You might think of any one performance of Autobiography/em> as its phenotypic form: the unique expression of a larger choreographic genotype.
If that were the only scrambler going on, it might still be graspable by the human mind – but it’s not. “Each section also has many permutations inside it,” McGregor explains. “Different dancers perform different roles. There are different orders to parts of the choreography, improvisations that emerge and vanish. The sections are not simply set and shuffled, but each also has a unique behaviour that evolves.” No wonder that McGregor leaves such mind-boggling variety to a higher power – a computer – to sort out.
But hasn’t he, as choreographer, sometimes sneakily put his oar into that system when he sees something he particularly likes, and wants to keep it that way? “Never,” he says, steadfastly, though he confesses that “I do have my own fantasy structural order. And no, it’s not come about so far!”
The story of Autobiography is beginning to sound like metaphysics: a piece built upon the intersections between chance, choice and destiny, just as our existence is. Yet it doesn’t feel like an abstract work: there is memory and blood and desire pumping through it, even if McGregor doesn’t narrate them. Yes, he has given titles to each section, which mean something to him (“Lucent” – his partner of 15 years; “Traces” – a poem he wrote a decade ago), but to the audience these are no more than suggestive words. Likewise, when I ask him why he chose to fix the first and last section as part of his choreographic system, his equivocal answer is: “Birth. Death. Maybe?”
Maybe? Maybe. If McGregor can choose auto/bio/graphy as his keyword, I decide that I can have may/be as mine. It seems to me an excellent word for the piece – and in the end, whose life is it anyway?