This quick return to Sadler’s Wells – the theatre where Autobiography premiered, in October 2017 – was in preparation for further performances at the Edinburgh International Festival (11 – 13 August). However, since there is no mathematical likelihood of any two performances ever being the same, each showing is effectively a world premiere.  

Company Wayne McGregor in <i>Autobiography</i> © Andrej Uspenski
Company Wayne McGregor in Autobiography
© Andrej Uspenski

This is a show about Wayne McGregor but, true to his ceaseless inquiry to push boundaries and do things differently; his autobiography has little to do with memoirs. Instead, it’s all about his genes. In collaboration with scientists from the Wellcome Trust, McGregor arranged for his entire genome to be sequenced as part of a research study; one more vital step – and the most personal, yet - in this choreographer’s ongoing collaborations on the science of embodied cognition.  

The next process was for McGregor to hang a choreographic interpretation on 23 chapters in his life story to date, each one reflecting something of consequence to his personal development (from a school photo to a poem about Icarus and a variety of other cultural influences). There are 23 chapters because – unless suffering from some genetic defect - we each have 23 pairs of chromosomes that comprise our unique DNA.  

Given that McGregor’s choreographic language often appears to be aligned to the principles of molecular biology – concerned with structure, function, evolution, replication, mapping and mutation - this complex work envelopes an esoteric intellectual hybridity of cultural and scientific intentions that is both infuriatingly challenging and satisfyingly poetic, all at the same time! Its like watching a well-loved Shakespeare play performed in a mixture of the original text and a translation that is part Hungarian and part Klingon; and – for good measure – with all the scenes in a random order!  

McGregor’s genomic sequences were then converted, by Nick Rothwell, into an algorithm, based on the choreographer’s unique genetic code, which randomly chooses, for each performance, from 21 of the chapters (the beginning and end event are always the same) and then determines both the order and the dancers who will perform each piece, thereby creating such a vast number of permutations that no two performances can ever be the same (at least without defying odds akin to winning three national lottery jackpots in a row). 

Each section has a number and a name (such as Avatar, Knowledge, Elevation, Aging), projected as a surtitle above the proscenium, which no more than a hint at the relevant autobiographical influence. The Avatar section is always the opener, danced here (as at the October première) with sinuous sentiment by Jacob O’Connell (winner of the contemporary category of the BBC Young Dancer in 2015). It’s an absorbing poetic solo that sets a high bar for the sections to follow.

Inevitably, what follows is a mixed bag, juxtaposing beautiful imagery and lyrical choreography alongside sections that were (deliberately, one supposes) repetitive. The ten dancers of Company Wayne McGregor mixed into the choreography uniquely for this evening as they will be for all other subsequent performances, were never less than a delight to watch. Long-term McGregor stalwarts were well in evidence, such as Daniela Neugebauer, Louis McMiller, Fukiko Takase and Jessica Wright and yet the group was refreshed by new talent, such as Rebecca Bassett-Graham (formerly of Beyond Repair Dance Company) and Jordan James Bridge. There are no characters but these dancers are full of personality with a palpable strength of purpose in every movement. The chance selection of what they dance creates some imbalances with some either absent for long periods or key to several successive sequences.

Dicing with chance in performance became the métier of Merce Cunningham and John Cage and it seems that McGregor’s Autobiography is also a dedication to their shift away from the prescription of structured theatrical authorship. This is not only true in the random nature of the work (albeit with its prescribed book ends) but also in McGregor’s partnership with the electronic musician, Jlin, who has composed much of the music for Autobiography, interspersed with a half-dozen other pieces (that may or may not make the genomic cut for each show) by contemporary artists such as Max Richter, Hildur Gudnadottir and Ryuichi Sakamoto with one nod to the long-distant past in Corelli’s Concerto Grosso in D Major from the 17th century.

A grid of metal lights hovers over the stage from the beginning, like an alien craft, briefly descending with dancers moving amongst the lights or lying beneath the structure (no doubt grabbing some much-needed respite) and there is the ubiquitous hazy smoke effect that is so prevalent, these days, in contemporary dance. The intention behind each section is similarly hazy and challenging; although the beauty of the pure dance in this innovative work remains arresting throughout. Every dance performance will always be different but - now that Cunningham and Cage are gone – not so comprehensively and explicit as in McGregor's Autobiography. Since one could argue that every show is a world première, it could keep critics in extra business, for years!