Interview: Wayne McGregor's DNA dictates new show Autobiography

A choreographer's genetic code determines shape of an ever-changing show, explains Kelly Apter
The novel structuring of Autobiography creates a stimulating random element. Picture: ContributedThe novel structuring of Autobiography creates a stimulating random element. Picture: Contributed
The novel structuring of Autobiography creates a stimulating random element. Picture: Contributed

‘To be completely honest, when Wayne first told us about it we thought ‘That’ll never last,’” says dancer Jessica Wright with a laugh. We’re talking about Wayne McGregor’s bold decision to change the structure of Autobiography at every single performance – and yes, it did last.

A dancer with McGregor’s company for almost 11 years, Wright knows her boss well but even she was surprised when this ambitious venture came to fruition. Comprised of 23 different sections, each with smaller sections within, Autobiography is a mix of solos, duets and group work. The order in which these are performed is dictated by McGregor, but not in the way you might think.

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Having had his entire genetic code sequenced, the results were then turned into a computer algorithm which – at the push of a button – decides which sections will be performed when, by whom, and to which piece of music. If it sounds complicated, it is – but not for the viewer. Behind the scenes, however, the dancers and technical crew have been presented with a challenge hitherto unseen.

“It’s totally unlike anything else I’ve danced by Wayne,” says Wright. “It’s a completely unique experience, because basically each time we perform Autobiography, it’s like a premiere. There’s something amazing – and a little bit terrifying – about how that forces you to be completely present and in the moment on stage. It’s really exciting and it certainly keeps us all on our toes.”

At the start, it was more terrifying than amazing. As Wright says, they really did think it wouldn’t last – that McGregor was just trying things out and would eventually find a structure he liked and stick to it. But as opening night crept closer, the reality began to sink in.

“When we first began to create the piece, Wayne would say ‘Today I want to see it in this order’ and then the next day he’d ask for a different order,” recalls Wright. “And that’s something he would typically do in any creation process – choreograph chunks of material, then start playing around with them to see what’s interesting structurally. So we thought OK, this feels normal, he’ll just keep doing that until he finds the version he likes best and then it’ll get fixed in place. But sure enough, as the premiere approached we realised this is going to stay, it’s part of it and it isn’t something he’s going to drop.”

And how did it go? “Well, the premiere itself was pretty terrifying,” recalls Wright. “We were given the running order on the morning of the show, so stress levels were through the roof. But now it’s transitioned from something scary into something playful, the fun of not knowing.”

That fun has been passed on to the audience, as we sit there with the knowledge that the show we’re watching has never been performed before – nor will be again. Roughly 15 of the 23 sections are chosen by the computer, with multiple permutations within that. Dancers are renowned for their capacity to pick up choreography quickly and retain it. Much of that, however, is down to muscle memory born out of repetition – but if the show changes at each performance, surely even the most experienced dancer would struggle to remember what’s coming next?

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“There’s no way you could memorise every order,” explains Wright. “So what tends to happen is we walk the structure through and do a technical run, and it’s during that it becomes like a muscle memory. But in Edinburgh we probably won’t have time to do that for all three shows – we’ll tech the first show and then on the second and third day we’ll just do a top and tail with entrances and exits.”

The computer algorithm has been set up to never select the same order twice, and McGregor deliberately decided never to rehearse a show fully once the order has been decided, preferring the dancers to, as he says, “solve the problems in real time.”

For Wright and her colleagues that means embracing the qualities of each new structure, which could mean switching tempos or mood in a dramatically different way to the night before. Likewise, some dancers will have a particularly challenging show stamina-wise, while for others it will be lighter.

“You have to work hard to find the ebb and flow of moving through contrasting sections,” says Wright. “Because you could go from something extremely aggressive, fierce and grounded into something much more lyrical and classical – you have to navigate that every night. Multiple things within the piece can change, and that makes it one giant adrenaline boost at each performance.”

Sharing in that adrenaline-fuelled adventure along with McGregor’s ten dancers, is the technical team. They get computer-generated information slightly further in advance than the dancers (two weeks as opposed to two days), in order to prepare the venue, but it’s still a nightly challenge to deliver a whole new show.

“When Wayne first mooted the re-ordering prior to going into production, we weren’t sure whether it would even be possible,” says the company’s technical director, Christopher Charles. “At the beginning there were so many unknowns, but once we started working with the creative team, it became clear how it could work and be implemented for touring.

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“We had a lot to adjust to in the first few shows, but now the process of having a unique order for every show is surprisingly smooth from a technical point of view.”

One thing is clear: Autobiography will be remembered as a special moment in all their careers.

“It certainly will,” says Wright. “It’s the show that didn’t let me sleep for a few weeks. And it keeps evolving, it’s alive and we’re allowed to be alive with it and enjoy it.

“As a performer you always strive to be genuinely in the moment and not go onto autopilot, which can be a challenge when you’re doing the same piece again and again. But we’ve been touring Autobiography for a year now and I don’t think there’s any risk of that happening, it’s still really fresh.”

• Autobiography is at the Festival Theatre, 11-13 August, 7:30pm.