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Going further

Posted on November 23, 2016

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Many people consider Wayne McGregor’s choreography the latest development in classical ballet, the next step after William Forsythe. Unlike Forsythe, however, he was not trained in ballet, yet he tinkers with its vocabulary obsessively, manipulating human bodies to their physical limits, distorting their alignment, disturbing their balance, and twisting joints to the extreme of their capability.

Unlike Forsythe in a different way, he seems to have little interest in precisely what we watch at any given moment. So he assigns as many tasks as possible to everyone, and the dancers move all the time, at breakneck speed and with little apparent relation to each other. Few phrases linger long enough for you to grasp their intricacies or recognise them again – “again” doesn’t rate with McGregor, who’s evidently determined not to repeat himself.

“My exploration with Royal Ballet dancers,” he claimed in a recent interview, “has focused on extending the individual dancers’ degrees of freedom. This particular body has the ability to do these specific things, and in combination can achieve this… It’s about pure form, about physical freedom.”

So his choice of music varies widely, and whatever The Royal Ballet is saving on tights – the women in his work often dance bare-legged – may help pay for the elaborate lighting, costumes and video projections commissioned for each new creation. But the choreography for most pieces remains essentially the same, and if you watch three of them in a row, as the latest Royal Ballet programme presents them, it’s impossible to tell one ballet from the other.

Take away the moody lighting or dizzying graphic settings, and all that’s left is movement without character or purpose. Which is fine, nothing wrong with pure movement, but the dancers who busk in the Times Square subway station contort themselves more extravagantly without training, designer costumes or government subsidy to sustain them.

The judges for competitive gymnastics award points for difficult moves and deduct points for disregarding the music or failing to “play a role or a character” in the floor routine. It’s a useful distinction for the performing arts too, where a certain expressivity – whether of mood, music, character or physicality itself – provides the key to the author’s intentions. Unwilling or unable to spell them out in movement, McGregor confines that key to detailed programme notes, using the dancers’ impersonal athleticism like surtitles to deliver his ideas and convert them into art.

Occasionally, he surprises you. To open his latest work, Multiverse, he created a stunning duet for Stephen McCrea and Paul Kay that matches the hypnotically repetitive vocal loops of Steve Reich’s Its Gonna Rain to perfection. As two voices overlap, repeating one short phrase in unison, then increasingly out of sync, the two men capture their rhythm and toss it between them in the same echoing increments. Sound and movement meet, mesh, fuse, enhancing one another and offering a shared, fascinating focus for our concentration.

At the beginning of McGregor’s Carbon Life, the ensemble frames the soloists with a sequence of tendus and port de bras, crisp and intriguing as origami. Though the rest of the piece shatters into the familiar assortment of rippling backs and angular limbs, I would now recognise that opening sequence anywhere. Not that its place in your memory determines the quality of any material you encounter, but once a choreographer’s ballets become interchangeable, why bother seeing more than one of them?

Akram Khan’s new Giselle for English National Ballet represents the flip side of McGregor’s work: it’s dramatic, effectively structured, crammed with passion and thoroughly involving. It does, however, leave Giselle a long way behind. Albrecht dances and dresses like one of the gang, without establishing even a hint of duplicity. A nobleman – the so-called Landlord – and his courtly entourage arrive for no discernible reason. Giselle becomes distraught, though not necessarily confused or mad, when her young man chats up one of the elegant courtiers, and with several people masking her body centre stage as Act I ends, I couldn’t tell whether she had died, collapsed or simply vanished into thin air.

Yet Khan’s ballet grabs you quickly and rivets your attention, with vivid patterns and muscular power that recall The Rite of Spring, with dead bodies as inert as Juliet, with vengeful Wilis, united in their implacable brutality like the Bacchantes in Orpheus or the vicious insect-creatures in The Cage. The original Giselle draws a clean line between the woman and her spirit. By blurring that line and allowing one to evaporate into the other, Khan challenges the artist to reveal that transformation gradually and challenges you to appreciate her artistry in realising it.

It’s hard to resist the surging emotion and primitive intensity of this Giselle. If McGregor’s acrobatics look superficial by comparison, perhaps it’s because we can only admire them. Khan goes further, inviting us to engage with the work that has engaged him.

Pictured: Tamara Rojo and James Streeter in Akram Khan’s Giselle.
Photograph: Laurent Leotardo


Barbara Newman’s books about ballet include Grace under Pressure; The Illustrated Book of Ballet Stories for children; a volume of interviews, Striking a Balance, and its follow-up, Never Far from Dancing. She has written for Dancing Times since 1984 and served as the dance critic for Country Life from 1990 to 2016. She archives all her work at

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