When he founded Random Dance in 1992, Wayne McGregor was something of a tech geek. By the early years of the 21st century, his dances had evolved into the rock concerts of the ballet world: raw, sexy, and high impact, accompanied by electronic scores, digital film, and futuristic architectural sets. Today, McGregor’s still fascinated by new technology. But in addition to presenting it onstage, he’s using cognitive science, neurology, and experimental psychology to understand what’s going on inside his dancers’ minds, and in their bodies.
This Wednesday, February 15, McGregor brings Random Dance to the Granada for its Santa Barbara premiere. The London-based contemporary dance company has achieved cult status in Europe, but it also has a Southern California connection. In 2009, McGregor worked with a team of scientists from UC San Diego to analyze the choreographic process and better understand the reasons behind his apparently “spontaneous” creative impulses.
Research of this kind forms the underpinning of Entity, an hour-long work for 10 dancers set to a score by Jon Hopkins, known for his work with Coldplay and Massive Attack, and composer Joby Talbot. It’s an uncompromising piece that pushes both its audience and its performers to look at dance in new ways.
“We talk about dance being instinctive,” McGregor noted in a recent phone interview, “but the work we’ve done with cognitive science in the past few years shows that what we think is instinctive is often habitual.” That is to say, what felt like a “random” response to a choreographic challenge may well be a return to a well-worn neural pathway. These days, every Random Dance rehearsal is filmed by five cameras and the data analyzed by scientists who then provide insights to both choreographer and dancers about why they’ve made the decisions they have.
All of this sounds rather theoretical, and McGregor admits the process is an intellectually rigorous one, but the product is at least as visceral as it is cerebral. Imagine rapid, unexpected movements backed by large-scale video projections, moving screens, and a propulsive blend of string quartet and electronic melodies.
The Random Dance aesthetic favors sharp articulation performed at high speed, and their movement vocabulary isn’t quite like anything you’ve seen before. “I like to give the dancers tasks,” McGregor explained. “I give the body a problem to solve, and what comes out often looks like the body misbehaving or doing things it wouldn’t normally do. So when people watch it, there’s an unfamiliarity.”
Musically, too, Entity plays with contrasts and subverts expectations. Talbot’s is a mathematically rigorous classical instrumentation, while McGregor calls Hopkins’s electronic composition “more sexual, sensual, and evocative, with throbbing beats.” As for the relationship between dance and music, McGregor says it isn’t simple. “Sometimes they’re at counter purposes,” he said. “Sometimes they’re very much in sync, and you get this kind of kinetic tick.”
What does it take to create such an extreme and startling work? Among other things, it takes a certain kind of collaborator. Chemistry is crucial to McGregor, whether it’s with lighting or costume designers, composers or performers — especially performers. “My dancers have to have a good sense of humor,” he noted. “What we do can be frustrating. They feel they have a massive physical and mental challenge. Dancers are people who spend a lot of time developing perfection, and then I ask them to fall over, to be destabilized. They have to be open and curious, and they have to want to learn about the habits I have choreographically and the habits they have physically.” But making a work like Entity isn’t simply demanding. “We keep it playful,” McGregor noted. “That’s really important. If we’re not having fun, then it’s just not worth it.”
Random Dance brings Entity to the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.) on Wednesday, February 15, at 8 p.m. For tickets, call (805) 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu. The company will teach a community dance class at Santa Barbara City College on Tuesday, February 14, at 5:30 p.m. For info, call (805) 966-6950 or visit sbdancealliance.org.