Wayne McGregor: ‘People will tell you there are rules, but there aren’t any’
Clad all in black, in an entirely monochrome office space, Wayne McGregor might give the impression of being somewhat austere. Instead, he bounds in with a disarming amount of energy for an early morning. He has already taken his two whippets out for a long run, before travelling to his east London base. It is something he does every morning, leaving his phone behind, as a way of setting himself up for the day.
We meet almost exactly a decade after McGregor was appointed resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet, a position he is the first contemporary artist to hold. His predecessors in the role include juggernaut ballet figures Kenneth MacMillan and Frederick Ashton, and he is the only person to hold the post without ballet training.
Though considered a radical appointment by some, it is no understatement to say that he has since proved transformative both for the company and for dance. Not bad for the Stockport boy who was inspired to dance by John Travolta and learned to choreograph by making up his own ballroom, Latin and disco routines.
“I was surprised, of course,” he says, “but I think I found Covent Garden in a state of change, I just brought in a different energy.”
It is clear he didn’t see himself as the rank outsider, but his appointment was nonetheless unexpected, particularly in a company where predictability and expectation had been par for the course for so long.
McGregor burst on to the scene in the early 1990s, setting up his own company, Random Dance – now Studio Wayne McGregor – when he was just 21. More than 10 years later, a piece for the Royal Ballet – Chroma – brought his dance to the attention of the masses. It became his signature, and has since been licensed in 13 countries across the globe.
Chroma blew away the cobwebs at the Royal Ballet, flinging open the doors to the new and the different. It was a career-defining moment: he landed the top choreography job at the company just weeks later, in December 2006. While it was a turning point for dance, McGregor is quick to point out that he had already created three pieces for the Royal Ballet by the time he made Chroma, and he saw the ballet world was already changing.
His decade at the Royal Ballet is being marked with a programme of work, old and new. Chroma was revived as part of a mixed bill last year, alongside another big hit, Carbon Life, and a new work, Multiverse. Now, his Virginia Woolf-inspired ballet, Woolf Works, is back in Covent Garden after its premiere in 2015.
When I ask how it feels to be returning to the piece, he is quick to correct me that while the piece is returning to the stage, he is not revisiting it. “I don’t look back. I don’t like looking back at old work and that’s why I don’t change work once it’s been made.” Everything he makes is a collection of decisions made at a certain time and it would be foolish to alter it later, he says.
But audiences come to it new. “They don’t care whether you made it 15 years ago, or 10 years ago or now. It’s always interesting to see how they’re seeing it and what is striking them differently with their eyes of today.”
He is reluctant to talk about process, or approach, since he does not have one, but many. Every piece demands something different of him and his dancers. Sometimes McGregor translates movements from his own body to the dancers’, at other times he regards bodies as “pure forms” that can be moved or manipulated.
McGregor talks about his creations not as a series of individual works, but as a continuous process: each piece is a “key frame” in something larger.
Productions take years to construct, with McGregor often working for two years or more from an initial vision to rehearsal. He talks about his work with a certain meticulousness, but also flexibility – a quality that allows him to stretch the ideals of what dance work can be. He is boundlessly curious about art, but perhaps even more so about science, psychology and technology. McGregor has worked for more than 12 years with cognitive neuroscientists to explore the interconnectivity between mind, body and movement.
Twice, he speaks of a desire to “plug dance into the real world”, and he often works with collaborators not traditionally associated with the art form. Carbon Life, for example, has music by Mark Ronson, while his ballet Tree of Codes has design by the artist Olafur Eliasson and music by Jamie xx.
Q&A: Wayne McGregor
What was your first job? In the carpet department at Debenhams. I was about 16 and it was agony.
What is your next job? Opening Tree of Codes at the Palais Garnier in Paris.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Keep doing your own thing – you’ll find your audience.
Who is your biggest influence? My parents. They don’t come from an arts background, but they gave me the confidence to be brave and just try things. In my work, my biggest influence is probably architecture.
What is your best piece of advice for auditions? Walk in, look at the person taking the audition very naturally, and say: “Hello.” You’d be amazed how often that doesn’t happen.
If you hadn’t been a choreographer what would you have done? I always wanted to be a barrister.
Do you have any superstitions of rituals? No. I’m quite obsessed with asymmetrical living – not doing things in routine. But doing that is probably a ritual in itself.
When it comes to dancers, McGregor confesses he can’t help but have favourites. For him, it’s not just about a dancer’s physical ability, but about how “open and curious” they are in the studio and what they are like to work with.
“I can’t be bothered with a pain in the neck. It takes up too much energy in the day,” he says. “I want a dancer who can come in who is really open and fresh and who can park all their problems at the door and just be present in the moment. I don’t really care if they’ve had a bad morning, but some people can’t help but hold on to that.”
So no time for divas then? “I don’t think so. Dancing is grunt work; it’s bloody hard work. It’s not glamorous in a way where you just float in and do a few moves.” His favourites are those with the ability to “shift their energy when they walk through the door”: Edward Watson, Steven McRae – “a total pleasure” – or Francesca Hayward.
McGregor admits he is “not good” with repetition. Judging from our time together, I sense this is an understatement. He later describes himself as a “very impatient person” and thinks his dancers would probably agree.
“I’m not a shouter, though. I’m very workmanlike. I’ve got very high expectations of myself, so I have very high expectations of them. If they’re coming in to rehearse with me for an hour, they’re working. It’s not like I’m saying, ‘Let’s just wait until the mood strikes.’ ”
He is no doubt strict, but McGregor is also warm and open-faced, and there’s not (much more than) a hint of impatience.
He talks about Chroma in an intriguing way – with an awareness that it propelled him on to the international stage, but as though it is the very same thing that might hold him back. “People always want you to make another Chroma, and then when you make a Chroma-like thing they said it is too like Chroma. You can’t win.”
He adds: “Part of my job is to hopefully nudge people into just experimenting with how they watch things. Sometimes it works well and sometimes it works disastrously, but you have to take the risks to do it.”
This seemingly endless desire to keep pushing the envelope was welcomed by colleagues when he first took up his resident choreographer job at the Royal Ballet. The organisation and its hundreds of employees were curious, he says – and excited to try new things. Its audiences, however, have taken varying lengths of time to come round to his style.
“Some had immediate engagement and brought lots of new people in and some have been much slower. Others I’ll never convert, and that’s fine. What amazes me is that the ones I’ve not converted still buy tickets. It’s bizarre. In a way, they enjoy going not to like it,” he laughs. “I think I’d spend my money on something else.”
The Royal Ballet is now braver than when he first joined, McGregor believes, both about the works on its own stages and those it takes on tour. He is self-effacing about how much of this open-mindedness was down to his influence, but Royal Ballet director Kevin O’Hare describes McGregor as having had a “phenomenal effect” on the company and its place in the world.
“Wayne has been quite life-changing for the company. Choreographers are the lifeblood of the company and he’s been like a whirlwind that’s come in,” O’Hare tells me. “It’s incredible the way he’s so into every aspect of our life.”
Those aspects include the extensive talent-development programmes run by the Royal Ballet. McGregor has a voracious passion for mentoring and nurturing new choreographers, and has strong views on how the process should be conducted.
The most important thing, he explains, is creating space for people to find their own voice, and encouraging them to explore – being a “critical friend”. His priorities also include drilling an understanding of the need for perspective and outreach work, as well as the business of being a choreographer – how to get commissions, working on contracts, negotiating with music publishers.
“All that stuff is so important. It’s really important that you self-produce as well. I get very frustrated when choreographers expect that the only way they can make things is through commissions.”
Going outside dance organisations and working with communities has been part of McGregor’s career since its inception. His first job was as a ‘dance animateur’, using dance as social interventionism in east London.
This is one of the reasons he has now moved his company there, with Studio Wayne McGregor setting up shop in a new development near the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. He has been housed in temporary offices for the past year, but this month will move into a multimillion-pound home nearby, with studios any dance company would be envious of.
He says the rocketing prices of central London rehearsal room rates and facilities that are often unfit for dance mean that companies can plough huge amounts of funding or earned income back into the buildings they use, rather than the people they work with. This has driven him to create a new model through which 25 artists or companies will each be given five weeks of free space in his new building.
In return, they will gift back five days of education and community work across the country, curated by Studio Wayne McGregor. That will provide 25 weeks of education work going straight into areas of limited arts access.
“I hope it will be a really meaningful project. There’s always been a parallel thing with me in working in choreo-graphy and working with ‘real people’, so it’s very important,” McGregor enthuses.
The company’s neighbours on the east London site are mostly tech companies. McGregor says he had no interest in settling near to other arts organisations, but as is so often the case, where he leads, others follow – Sadler’s Wells is set to move into new facilities in the Olympic Park in 2021.
The company’s future looks steady in east London, but McGregor says he is uncertain about the potential impact of Britain’s exit from the European Union. “I’ve got a very international company, so I’ve got to make sure there aren’t any problems with getting the best talent,” he says.
He’s not a fan of Brexit, but concedes: “Given that it’s going to happen, we have to look for the opportunities, be reactive and find new ways of working.”
McGregor is less positive about the creative education and funding situations domestically, and advocates a belligerent approach to making sure that any lost EU funding is made up with UK money. It is equally important to champion a dance sector that is open to new voices and new talent, regardless of background, he says.
“This idea that you have to go to an elite school and the elite school allows you to work in an elite company is not the only way… There is so much creative talent, all we need to do is find a way to harness it and do something with it. People will keep telling you there are rules, but there aren’t any, you can invent your own way to do it if you’ve got the right support like I did.”
McGregor’s parents are not from the arts – during his childhood his father was an estate manager and his mother worked in the accounts department for technology firm Phillips. He still cites their support as one of his biggest inspirations.
Looking forward to what he hopes will be a long-lasting relationship with the Royal Ballet, McGregor says the key will be ensuring that its dance is “really mobile without being unstable”.
Working in new domains such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality – areas he is already exploring – he is excited that technology could expand the way dance and the arts are disseminated beyond live theatre-based experiences.
The commitment he has been shown thus far by the Royal Opera House has been “really amazing”, he says, but “change is very important”.
“Dance should be an art form in flux – it should be moving all the time. I want people who are going to completely blow these concepts of what it should be out of the window. I want to be pushed into feeling awake and feeling an urgency of making.”
Does he find that people are already on his tails, pushing him to work harder? “All the time. They’re not even on my tails, some of them are in front of me and that’s really exciting.”
With his pieces now being performed in countries across the globe, from the Bolshoi to the New York City Ballet, it’s easy to feel that McGregor is no longer the disrupter, but his work is fast becoming classical. I’ve got a feeling that will spur him on more.
Woolf Works runs at the Royal Opera House until February 14