Something out of nothing

Last week I spent an evening at the Royal Opera House watching resident choreographer Wayne McGregor create an entirely new work, Something, in front of an audience. Over two hours we watched spellbound as he worked with six young dancers who had never performed together before, shaping the piece from a combination of raw imagination, fragments of music and the physique and personality of each individual performer.

Generally, of course, the actual creation of any work is fantastically boring to watch, as every movie about writers demonstrates. But seeing McGregor and his dancers together was a revelation, not so much for the physical grace of the performers (which nonetheless made me feel about 10,000 years of evolution behind) as for the mental challenge of the art. 

McGregor is a thoroughly conceptual artist, more inspired by semiotics, mathematics and philosophy than music. His work expresses ideas as much as emotions: it’s fluid, sensual and spontaneous, its imperfections enhanced as often as they’re ironed out. This is extremely demanding on the dancers: there’s little familiar choreographic language to fall back on, so it requires extraordinary memory as well as skill. The tiniest flick of a wrist, the inward curl of a foot, must be remembered, repeated and co-ordinated with the others, over and over again. It’s less like watching a theatre director than an architect, sculpting complex forms in three dimensions: more Sketches of Frank Gehry than The Red Shoes. By the end, as McGregor united two entirely separate trios into a thrilling, unpredictable sextet, it was like watching someone write a different novel with each hand: an extraordinary feat of co-ordination, imagination and craft. This event, created by Belinda Briones, is exactly what the ROH should be doing to attract new audiences: demanding, fascinating and rewarding, and deepening our appreciation of the art.

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