The workings of the human body explored in Random Dance production
Even on the surface, the human body is a baffling piece of mechanical engineering. But peel back the layers, strip it back to its basic component parts, and a precisely organised web of cells and molecules, tendons and ligaments and joints is revealed.
A major part of Wayne McGregor’s recent creative work has centred on collaborations with cognitive scientists, investigating the inner and outer workings of flesh and blood, blurring the divisions between art, science and mathematics and examining the perfectly coordinated way in which the body operates.
In 2004, he became a research fellow in the experimental psychology department of Cambridge University – a somewhat unusual departure for a dancer. Indeed, career-wise, McGregor has trodden where few have gone before. He is regarded with awe and wonder in the world of contemporary dance.
He formed Random Dance in 1992 as the instrument for evolving his now famously fast, articulate choreographic style, with its beautiful classical overtones. And in 2006, the circle was closed when he was appointed resident choreographer of The Royal Ballet.
A frisson of excitement inevitably surrounds a Random Dance performance. One never knows quite what to expect. The inspiration and title of its latest piece, FAR is taken from Flesh in the Age of Reason, Roy Porter’s weighty history of 18th century explorations into body and soul.
McGregor was drawn to its enquiries into movement, thought and emotion, evoking the spirit of the Age of Enlightenment, when intricate anatomical drawings and microscopic analysis raised all kinds of intellectual and philosophical questions about the meaning and composition of life itself.
In an hour of continuous, high-energy performance at the Waterfront Hall, ten extraordinary dancers, all clearly attuned to the mindset and creative vision of their director, give physical expression to a series of searching, abstract concepts surrounding the soul, human consciousness, the coordination of head, heart and psyche.
If it sounds impossibly difficult to get to grips with, well, in many ways it is. There will be those who will lose patience, who will deem this dance genre to be self-indulgent, inaccessible, cold, distant.
Those judgements will not be helped by a clinically stark set, backed by a steel curtain dotted with 100 tiny neon-lit tubes. McGregor’s style is not about pretty pictures and feel-good experiences but about high-tech presentation, intellectual challenge and supremely brilliant dance.
The piece opens in darkness, with four black-clad figures bearing flaming torches onto the stage. The soaring operatic score, composed by Ben Frost, tells us that 'we were not stocks and stones… nor are we angels… but men clothed with bodies and governed by our imagination'.
And the next 60 minutes proceed to illustrate the argument, as the soundscape becomes intense and electronic, then sweet and folksy and Lucy Carter’s astonishing lighting design takes us into other worlds and realities.
Barely clad in natural earth and flesh tones, the dancers whirl and whiplash through a mind-boggling series of non-stop sequences, twisting and weaving their bodies into impossible, gravity defying multiple shapes, redolent of images viewed through a microscope in a laboratory.
At its height, it is a challenge to keep track of where the whole thing is going, but the ending is simple – a motionless body, devoid of soul and strength, abandoned on a darkening stage.
FAR is certainly not everyone’s idea of a night out at a dance show, but one would have to go far, very far, to witness dancing and choreography of this intensity and sublime quality. It’s a real Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's event, the kind of performance, for better or worse, that you simply don’t see anywhere else at any other time of year.
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