Dance fever

Share this article

LAST week, at the launch of the new Royal Opera House season in London, chief executive Tony Hall braved the wrath of Covent Garden purists by reportedly announcing that he wanted "to get that buzzy cool crowd to come in".

Opera traditionalists immediately scoffed that Hall was having a mid-life crisis, but there's no doubting his sincerity. With an average audience age estimated at 50-plus, venues such as the Royal Opera House desperately need to encourage a younger crowd.

Which is why Wayne McGregor, the unconventional choreographer, is at the heart of their new plans. "The general impression, still, is that the ROH is a place for your parents," he says. "When you think of an opera house crowd, you think of black tie, don't you? Of course, it's fine to go in jeans but that's not the perception."

McGregor cites John Travolta as his biggest childhood influence, and loves the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing. He's equally at home on the set of a Harry Potter movie as he is onstage at Sadler's Wells. Shaven-headed and elastic-limbed, he has an eye for the unorthodox and eclectic, making dances to club music, to the White Stripes and, in 2006's Amu, to a classical score by John Tavener.

His latest work for his own company, Random Dance, which premieres at Sadler's Wells next week, is inspired by months of work with cognitive scientists at Oxford, Cambridge and UCL and represents the first instalment in a long-term project to create an "artificially intelligent choreographic brain" using computer programming.

For all his iconoclasm, for the past year McGregor has also been working at the very heart of British establishment ballet, as the Royal Ballet's resident choreographer. His appointment, inspired by the sell-out success of 2006's Chroma, was widely seen as a radical move. McGregor, after all, has never taken a ballet lesson in his life and, before accepting the post, had no detailed first-hand knowledge of the RB's traditional repertoire of Sir Kenneth MacMillan and Frederick Ashton.

At 37, he's too old to be called an enfant terrible – but that's his reputation. So how has he found conservative Floral Street? "Working at the opera house has been an absolute revelation to me," he replies. "It's been incredibly stimulating. I've had a real physical, visceral thrill from seeing all the repertoire. The fact is I've been transported every time I've seen something here. I don't think the (ROH image] problem has anything to do with the nature of the work. Once you see it, you see just how relevant it can be. That perception of fustiness – it's probably more to do with the audience than the work."

The ROH is using its new, cutting-edge asset in pioneering ways, entrusting McGregor with the artistic directorship of Ignite, a three-day multi-arts festival designed specifically to attract new audiences this autumn. If McGregor's appointment as choreographer in residence was regarded as brave, handing over the whole building to him for three days might be considered positively fearless. One of the first events he has scheduled, for example, is a club night – a prospect guaranteed, surely, to have the traditionalists choking on their dainty interval sarnies.

"But the traditionalists won't come, will they?" says McGregor, grinning. "I don't know whether they'll like the idea or not, to be honest. I wouldn't concern myself with it if they didn't." The night will feature a slate of well known DJs and will take place in either the Linbury Theatre or the glass-roofed Paul Hamlyn Hall. McGregor may even decide to market it in tried-and-tested clubbing fashion with fly posters wrapped around lampposts. Does he really want London's trendy Hoxton crowd to decamp en masse for the hallowed spaces of the Royal Opera House?

"I'd like interesting people to come who are curious about a different way of thinking about Covent Garden," he replies carefully. "When I think about a night out in London, I don't restrict myself to a specific art form. I don't think, 'Oh, I'm part of a dance audience,' or, 'I'm a ballet lover.' I think about the thing that most excites me that night. People who think like that are the ones I want to get in."

Ignite draws inspiration from the ROH 2008-9 season, during which McGregor will bring together the Royal Opera and Royal Ballet in a double production of Dido and Aeneas/Acis and Galatea. Meanwhile, other work in the Ignite pipeline includes a new commission by the artist Julian Opie, famous for his portraits of Blur, and a piece of art, as yet unspecified, from Blast Theory, a group of interactive gaming specialists. This latter is hardly a surprise, given McGregor's love, and extensive use, of new technology. Growing up in Stockport he was something of a schoolboy nerd. "I started playing with computers at the age of seven and I've just never stopped."

Indeed, it's at the interface between art and science that McGregor has found his richest material; 2004's AtaXia was an unsettling, hyperactive response to a rare neurological disorder that robs the body of its ability to co-ordinate movement. In Amu, he focused on the fundamental, mystical processes of the heart and in Nemesis he attached giant prosthetic arms to his dancers' limbs.

Famously, when Warner Bros hired him to choreograph Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, McGregor refused to use stage-school kids but insisted instead on using children from east London who had never danced before. It was "social dancing classes" – Latin American and ballroom – that hooked him on dance, and he's passionate about hooking others.

"The Billy Elliot syndrome still exists, but Strictly Come Dancing has helped enormously – seeing those macho sports stars wearing strange costumes and having a great time can only be positive. Now what we need is a mix of dance on television; not only Strictly, not only ballet, but modern dance, like Chroma, as well."

His own trajectory from the tango to the very top of British dance has been swift and unconventional. He studied choreography at Leeds and established his own company at the age of 22. Several years later Random became a fixture at Sadler's Wells. Along the way, he's choreographed for Andrew Lloyd Webber and created dance for major companies across Europe and America. He has also directed opera at La Scala.

When I ask him whether he'd like one day to run the Royal Ballet itself, he refuses to give an entirely straight answer, but implies that he would very much. "Do I need to have danced Ashton or MacMillan to be able to preserve its future? No, because there are many other brilliant people who'd do that better than me (whom I could employ]. I think I absolutely have a responsibility and care for heritage ballet, but I also have strong views about what could dynamically engage us in the future and how you really get people to be curious, and then comfortable, with going to the Royal Opera House. Because it is so thrilling when you get there."

&#149 Entity is at Sadler's Wells, London, 10-12 April. Tel: 0844 412 4300 or see www.sadlers Ignite is at Covent Garden, 12-14 September (booking from 1 July on 020 7304 4000 or at