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The Royal Ballet's Resident Choreographer Wayne McGregor. Photo: Nick Mead / ROH ©

The Royal Ballet's Resident Choreographer Wayne McGregor. Photo: Nick Mead / ROH ©

Concepts such as coding, decoding, generative systems, algorithms, computer programming, neuroscience and cognitive mapping seem more akin to geek lingo than ballet choreography and yet all these notions inform Wayne McGregor’s dance making.

Having trained in modern dance, McGregor is the first resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet to come from outside the company. Literally and figuratively breaking the line of succession, he said at the time of his appointment that he would not try to be like Ashton or MacMillan. Indeed, while his predecessor MacMillan  looked for inspiration in the human soul, McGregor seems intent on examining the human body and the sensorial experiences and responses derived from it.

Wayne McGregor in a Nutshell

Born in Stockport in 1970, McGregor studied dance at University College, Bretton Hall (Leeds University) and at the José Limon School in New York. In 1992 he started his own company Wayne McGregor | Random Dance and in the same year was appointed choreographer-in-residence at The Place, London.

He was appointed the Resident Choreographer of The Royal Ballet in 2006 following successful productions such as Qualia, Engram and the much lauded Chroma. In addition to regularly creating works for Random Dance, he has also choreographed for several ballet and opera companies around the world, including San Francisco Ballet, The Australian Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, English National Opera and La Scala.

His interests outside dance have resulted in several other associations which include curating a festival for the Royal Opera House (Deloitte Ignite, 2008) and choreographing movement for movies, plays (“Fram” at The National Theatre and the recent “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”), musicals and art galleries (the Hayward Gallery, Canary Wharf and the Pompidou Centre).

McGregor was involved earlier this year in a collaboration between the Royal Ballet and Royal Opera companies – directing and choreographing the Baroque double bill of Acis and Galatea and Dido and Aeneas, which have been recorded for DVD release. His new production for The Royal Ballet, Limen, premieres this week.

McGregor’s dance vocabulary is full of contrasts. It combines speed with clarity of movement, fluidity with angular moves and sharp edges. Sometimes his choreography may also incorporate elements of classical ballet and the majority of his pieces for the Royal Ballet have featured female dancers en pointe. Although he says he has not completely discarded the possibility of narrative works, this vocabulary is generally used to create and structure abstract pieces with a contemporary relevance inspired mainly by visual arts, architecture and, last but not least, by science.

Using science to understand art and creative processes is a topic that fascinates McGregor. Since 2002 he has been involved in a research project with a group of neuroscientists (from the Department of Cognitive Science, University of California, San Diego) and psychologists to explore questions around how choreographic ideas are transmitted to dancers. Via this project he also hopes to learn more about how he and his colleagues actually do what they do. His appointment as the Royal Ballet’s resident choreographer extends beyond creating ballets for the company and  involves nurturing, inspiring and transmitting all this creativity and knowledge to future generations of choreographers.

Often in my own choreographies I have actively conspired to disrupt the spaces in which the body performs. Each intervention, usually some kind of addition, is an attempt to see the context of the body in a new or alien way. Wayne McGregor

The Royal Ballet 2006, Chroma

Sarah Lamb and Federico Bonelli in McGregor's Chroma. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

Works for the Royal Ballet

Symbiont(s) – The Clore Studio (2000)

Definition: An organism in a symbiotic relationship

Conceived for the intimate space of the Clore Studio (ROH) in close collaboration with the dancers, Symbiont(s) was McGregor’s first piece for The Royal Ballet at a time when Anthony Dowell was still the company’s Artistic Director. It also marked the first time McGregor choreographed a role for dancer Edward Watson, now a leading presence in most of McGregor’s works. It featured seven dancers in a series of duets, solos or trios en pointe and off pointe. Its central duet danced by Watson and Deborah Bull was later used on tour. Symbiont(s) won a Time Out award for Outstanding Achievement in dance.

Brainstate – Linbury Studio (2001)

Brainstate was a collaboration between dancers from The Royal Ballet and from Wayne Mcgregor’s own company Random Dance (18 male and female dancers in total). It was done as a closing piece for an “all McGregor” evening alongside other work by Random Dance and a re-staging of Symbiont(s).

Qualia – The Royal Opera House main stage (2004)

Definition: A raw & sensory experience

Qualia marked Wayne McGregor’s debut on the big ROH stage, following an invitation from Monica Mason, who had just been appointed as the Royal Ballet’s Artistic Director. It featured four lead dancers (Edward Watson, Ivan Putrov, Jaimie Tapper and Leanne Benjamin). Its highlight was a “sensorial” pas de deux for Watson and Benjamin which would later be used in various galas.

Engram – Linbury Studio (June 2005)

Definition: Patterns of neuro-physiological change thought to relate to storage of memories in the brain.

Part of the “Inspired by Ashton” programme, Wayne McGregor cast two of the Royal Ballet’s most classical dancers, Alina Cojocaru and Federico Bonelli, for a pas de deux set to art rock music (By Canadian group “Godspeed You Black Emperor” or GSBE). Engram showed these dancers under a different light, combining McGregor’s notions of angularity and rhythm with classical steps. 

Chroma –  The Royal Opera House main stage (Nov 2006)

Definition: The purity of a color or its absence from white or grey

For Chroma, McGregor worked with a small group of ten dancers. Some were already familiar with his work, others less so. It was the first time McGregor’s male muses Steven McRae, Eric Underwood and Edward Watson appeared together in one of his works (this trio re-appeared in Acis & Galatea and will be seen again in Limen) alongside ballerinas Alina Cojocaru, Tamara Rojo and Sarah Lamb. Chroma is McGregor’s only piece for the Royal Ballet which is performed completely off pointe.

Featuring a minimalist set designed by architect John Pawson to make the audience focus on the dancers’ very detailed articulations and in the “colour” provided by their own movements, Chroma was made in three weeks. The work is set to music by modern composer Joby Talbot, including several orchestrated tracks from The White Stripes (Aluminun, Blue Orchid and The Hardest Button to Button).  A hit with audiences and critics alike, Chroma won a number of prestigious dance awards, including the 2007 Laurence Olivier Award (Best Dance Production).

Nimbus – The Royal Opera House main stage, as part of “The World Stage Gala” (Nov 2007)

Definition 1: a cloud or atmosphere about a person or thing; 
2: an indication (as a circle) of radiant light or glory about the head of a drawn or sculptured divinity, saint, or sovereign; 
3: a rain cloud

Nimbus was created one year after Chroma, specifically for the “World Stage Gala”. It was McGregor’s first official piece as the Royal Ballet’s resident choreographer. Set to Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat A, it is a 10-minute short work performed by Marianela Nuñez, Zenaida Yanowsky, Eric Underwood and Edward Watson.

Infra – The Royal Opera House main stage (Nov 2008)

Definition: Below

Alongside his productions for operas Dido & Aeneas/Acis & Galatea, Infra is perhaps the closest Wayne McGregor has come to narrative work.  Juxtaposing his choreography with Julian Opie‘s LED backdrop of pedestrians, a haunting score by Max Richter and lighting by his longtime collaborator Lucy Carter, it infers relationships, ruptures, actions and reactions against the backdrop of our chaotic modern lives.

Dido & Aeneas – Acis & Galatea – The Royal Opera House main stage (March 2009)

McGregor directed and choreographed the Baroque operas Dido and Aeneas (a production he had originally done for La Scala) and Acis and Galatea bringing a rare collaboration between The Royal Opera and dancers from The Royal Ballet. Both productions have been recorded for DVD release.

Limen – The Royal Opera House main stage (Nov 2009)

Definition: 3. Psychology, Physiology. The threshold of consciousness.

Limen, McGregor’s new 26-minute piece for 15 dancers (eight men and seven women) premieres this Wednesday. According to the choreographer it will be a meditation on ‘thresholds of life and death, darkness and light, reality and fantasy’. As he has done before with Chroma (John Pawson) and Infra (Julian Opie), Limen will feature an artistic collaboration with Japanese contemporary conceptual artist Tatsuo Miyajima.

Miyajima has designed a giant wall of blue LED lights flashing on and off which will reflect the individuality of each dancer and their unique personal movements. Limen will be set to a cello concerto by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho whose distinct sounds combine orchestral music and electronics.

A list of McGregor’s choreographies for Random Dance, including current piece Entity as well as past productions Erazor, Amu and AtaXia can be found here

Videos

  • A short feature on Chroma [link]
  • A short feature on Infra [link]
  • Trailer for Infra [link]
  • A short feature on Limen [link]

The Royal Ballet 2006, Chroma

Eric Underwood in McGregor's Chroma. Photo: Dee Conway / ROH ©

Extracts of Reviews and Selected Praise

Of Qualia

At moments the choreography is in danger of seeming like a box of McGregor’s cleverest tricks – shapeshifting moves that flash through the dancers’ bodies, kaleidoscopic patterns of shape and line. But there is a genuine seam of strangeness in the work and, with the help of an eerily atmospheric score by Scanner, McGregor seems to put his dancers in touch with a future the rest of us haven’t really glimpsed. Judith Mackrell at The Guardian [link]

Of Engram

Cojocaru can make almost anything look good, but both McGregor and Brandstrup clearly understand how Ashton’s ballerina-worship can serve a dancer of today. McGregor turned her into a vision of fluidity in Engram, morphing between classical purity and eerie abandon. Dancer Federico Bonelli was her shape-maker, manipulating her to pulsating music by Montreal art-rockers Godspeed You! Black Emperor. A video montage of Ashton and his muses was a reminder of how he delighted in showing off a dancer’s virtuosity. Jann Parry at The Guardian [link]

Of Chroma

Chroma is exceptionally well judged. The 30-minute piece for 10 dancers is sombre and playful in turn, with the flesh-coloured costumes evoking an intense humanity, and the stunning “infinity” set by architect John Pawson both revealing the dancers and immersing the audience. Lucy Carter’s votive candle-like lighting intensifies the effect. Sarah Frater at The Evening Standard [link]

It is osteopathy as choreography, bones and musculature pulled and twisted, the dance fighting to escape from the sinuosities, the flexings and contractions of the body. It is movement introverted, self-obsessed, self-regarding, brilliantly done by its cast (who were deservedly cheered to the echo) and unable to escape from its formulaic, almost dogmatic manner. Clement Crisp at The Financial Times [link]

Of Infra

Beneath the ordered surface of our daily routine, McGregor tells us, complicated forces are at work. We must connect, because all else is terror and the void. Edward Watson, clearly McGregor’s male muse, seems to pulse with angst – all torque, sinew and pale intensity. Eric Underwood burns with almost as cool a flame, and 20-year-old Melissa Hamilton, plucked from the corps de ballet, slashes the choreography to the bone with glittering, scalpel precision. Luke Jennings at The Guardian [link]

It’s a perfect abstract representation of the lines, quoted in the program, from T. S. Eliot’s “Wasteland”: “Under the brown fog of a winter dawn./A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many.” The dancers, who slowly accrue onstage as Max Richter’s haunting melodies for strings begin over random noises (machines, voices), are the flesh-and-blood incarnation of the digital crowd above, and Mr. McGregor imbues them with a touching humanity, even as they move in unimaginable ways. Roslyn Sulcas at The New York Times [link]

Upcoming Performances at the ROH

Agon/Sphinx/Limen – 4-18 Nov 2009, as part of The Royal Ballet’s Autumn Triple Bill.

New Watkins/Rushes – Fragments of a Lost Story/Infra – 19 Feb – 4 March 2010, as part of The Royal Ballet’s Winter Triple Bill.

Chroma/Tryst/Symphony in C – 22 May – 11 June 2010, as part of The Royal Ballet’s Summer Triple Bill.

Sources and Further Information

  1. Wayne McGregor’s Complete List of Works from Random Dance’s website. [link]
  2. Wayne McGregor Official Website [link]
  3. Wayne McGregor, a biography by Judith Mackrell. From the Chroma programme
  4. Wayne McGregor interviewed by David Bain. Ballet Association Report, June 2007. [link]
  5. Discover Limen on the ROH Website [link]
  6. Wayne’s World: When Ballet met Science. Euan Ferguson, The Observer, October 2009. [link]
  7. Wayne McGregor: Zen and the Art of Dance. Interview with Wayne McGregor by Judith Mackrell, The Guardian, October 2009. [link]
  8. Step by Step guide to dance: Wayne McGregor. By Sanjoy Roy, The Guardian [link]
  9. Dido & Aeneas DVD [link]

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The Royal Ballet’s newest Principal dancer, aussie Steven McRae, charmed the hearts of these Bag Ladies since his first appearances in Covent Garden. At just 23, he has climbed through the ranks and made an impact on every single role he has been cast on. From his debut as one of the side soloists in Ashton’s demanding Symphonic Variations, his first big role and his outstanding Spirit of Fire, in Christopher Wheeldon’s re-reading of Homage to the Queen (Fire) to his unforgettably boyish Romeo opposite Alina Cojocaru’s Juliet, this strawberry blonde dancer has more than justified his fast rise.

His undeniable technical abilities to spin multiple, fast and very centered turns, soar high and “freeze frame” in the air, as well as his inherent musicality and charm are guaranteed to dazzle audiences and it seemed clear from the candid (some would say downright bold, see first video link below) way he spoke about his ambitions that he was never going to be a happy camper in the corps de ballet where he first started. As we look forward to Steven’s first season as a Principal dancer, here are some interesting facts & web notes on him.

Steven McRae in a Nutshell

Born in Sydney (Plumpton, in the Western Suburbs). Like many men in the dance world, he started ballet at 7 years old because of his sister. He also did gymnastics, jazz and tap dancing.

He won the gold medal of the Genée Competition in Sydney (performing Danses Concertantes) and scooped the first prize in 2003’s Prix de Lausanne, despite not having started full time ballet much long before the competition.

He joined the Royal Ballet School, where he studied for three years, before finally being offered a contract with the company. His first role was in the triple bill “The Wedding Bouquet/Requiem/Les Noces”.

His first big break was in Symphonic Variations, sharing the stage with Johan Kobborg and Federico Bonelli.

He has had work created on him by Wheeldon, McGregor and Marriott, among others.

Steven works closely with long time principals Johan Kobborg & Alina Cojocaru, having danced important roles in Johan’s productions of La Sylphide (as Gurn) and in Napoli Divertissements and more recently creating a role alongside Sergei Polunin and Cojocaru in Kobborg’s short virtuoso piece Les Lutins. At the time of his debut in Romeo & Juliet the press reported that it was Alina who had asked for him to partner her when Kobborg became injured.

Steven partnered Alina in the pas de deux of Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes at the ROH’s World Stage gala in Nov 2007, having also travelled to Tokyo with her that autumn to stand in for Kobborg in Ashton‘s The Dream (debuting as Oberon). They are due to reprise their partnership in Japan later this year dancing in The Nutcracker.

Steven McRae as Romeo. Photo: Bill Cooper © Source: Dansomanie

Steven McRae as Romeo. Photo: Bill Cooper - Royal Ballet © Source: Dansomanie

Steven is ambitious, competitive and a perfectionist, placing major importance on developing his roles. His most embarrassing moment occurred when his trousers split open during his first Fille Mal Gardée. He is also a grateful student, taking  time to visit his old ballet school whenever he visits Australia (usually once a year) where he teaches and mentors new generations of dancers.

His dream role is Des Grieux in MacMillan’s Manon.

Videos

A quick spin through YouTube & a glimpse at McRae’s superb technique and musicality:

  • In the Swan Lake pas de trois, together with Laura Morera and Yuhui Choe [link].
  • Squirrel Nutkin from The Tales of Beatrix Potter [link]
  • A Tap performance for The Prix de Lausanne 2003 [link]

Extracts of Reviews & Praise

Of his debut in Symphonic Variations

What the future holds for Steven McRae I dare not guess, but if he is not spoiled by too much – or too little – attention, he must surely have a splendid career. His dancing was exceptional in grace and security. Clement Crisp at the Financial Times [link].

Of his debut as Romeo (where he proved he was more than a technical whiz-kid)

Instead, and how sensitive this proved, his Romeo is younger, quieter than most in the early scenes, and then, when the fuse of his passion for Juliet is lit, burning with an inner fire that lights every step. Clement Crisp at the Financial Times [link]

McRae’s dancing is already polished by enthusiasm and an impressive classical technique and it holds nothing back. Debra Craine at The Times

Although only 21, McRae is one of the most technically accomplished dancers in the Royal Ballet and he brought an elegance and lightness of touch to sequences that have undone much more experienced performers. Luke Jennings at The Observer [link].

From his first minute on stage, you know his is going to hit the spot…his fizzing solo work cut the fastest, most deliriously buoyant turns I’ve seen in 15 years of balcony scenes. He also offered some uniquely nuanced character observation. Jenny Gilbert at The Independent [link]

If Covent Garden abided by entrenched Russian typecasting rules McRae would never have got beyond jester roles, which is essentially what happened when he played the Spirit of Fire (…). He’s fleet, slight, taut, acrobatically agile, extrovert, red haired and Australian. But McRae had already stretched beyond stereotype via Symphonic Variations and then partnering Tamara Rojo in Wayne McGregor’s monumentally successful Chroma. Yet none of these performances had really prepared audiences for his powerfully assured debut as Romeo. Allen Robertson for Dance Now (vol 16, n.4 Winter 07)

Of his role as the Spirit of Fire, in Wheeldon‘s Homage to the Queen (Fire)

Christopher Wheeldon’s Fire is filled with furious allegro and nervy shifts of emphasis, driven by Steven McRae’s bursting performance as the Spirit of Fire. Debra Craine at the Times [link]

Christopher Wheeldon’s Fire has a demonic flavour, with a superbly athletic, explosive role as the spirit of Fire for the young and hugely talented Steven McRae. David Dougill at the Times [link]

and of his Nutcracker as the Sugar Plum Fairy Prince Cavalier

McRae is bright, brilliant-cut in technique, ardent in shaping a step or a phrase, and the role is his – and handsomely so. Clement Crisp at the Financial Times [link].

Steven McRae’s Upcoming Performances at the ROH

  • New work by Kim Brandstrup 21-26 Sep 2009
  • Agon/Sphinx/New McGregor 5/13/17 Nov 2009
  • Nutcracker (The Prince) 30 Nov/12 Dec

Public Booking opens July 14th. Friends of Covent Garden priority booking period currently open.

Sources and Further Information

  1. Steven McRae interviewed by David Bain. The Ballet Association. From the 2007 reports.  [link]
  2. The 7:30 Report. Ballet’s Star Spectacular Rise by Rebecca Baillie. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. January 2009. [link]
  3. Dance: Steven McRae. An editorial by Clement Crisp. The Financial Times, January 2007. [link]
  4. Rising Star by Emma Love. The Observer, January 2007 [link]

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