What is an autobiography? In his company’s production Autobiography at the Edinburgh International Festival, choreographer Wayne McGregor rejects a linear narrative to explore a mix of out-of-sequence hints of traditional storytelling combined with the idea of our genetic code telling our life-story.

<i>Autobiography</i> © Ryan Buchanan
Autobiography
© Ryan Buchanan

Supertitles above the stage announce the first dance: '1. Avatar'. A single dancer glides through smoke against a watery backdrop of electronic drones in Jlin’s hypnotic score. His fluid movements pull his ribcage out of shape and arms backwards, until his body is a contorted, animalistic alien. This spiralling, cartwheeling body is a blank template, onto which the dances that follow will impart some idea of a person.

The story behind the production has McGregor, known for pushing choreographical boundaries, getting his own genome sequenced and using that to inform his creative process. An algorithm, created from McGregor’s DNA by software engineer, composer and artist Nick Rothwell, ‘picks’ a selection from a list of dances, and determines what order those dances will come in. This means a different sequence and set of dances will be performed each night. On Saturday, for example, about 15 of the 23 dances were performed. Why twenty-three? Because most humans have twenty-three pairs of chromosomes.

<i>Autobiography</i> © Ryan Buchanan
Autobiography
© Ryan Buchanan

It is an interesting idea, but nothing in the performance itself gives the audience any indication that this is the point. Likewise, the first dance spirals like a chain of DNA, but not obviously enough that it would cross someone’s mind without the detailed description in the programme explaining the entire DNA concept and the premise behind the work. Without a programme, the audience may enjoy some of the very skilful dancing but would lose the main point of the piece. However, the numbering still makes it clear the dances are not being performed in their assigned order and that some are missing. Intriguingly, we aren’t being shown the whole story, and it is being told out of sequence.

This worked effectively in Saturday night’s performance, which happened to include the dance '9. Nurture', a horrifying piece about a decidedly un-nurturing environment. The two dancers cry, slap each other, and leap in anguish against a soundtrack of a child’s voice screaming, asking “What did I do?” and begging forgiveness and to be left alone. Later, giant upside-down neon light pyramids descend for the piece '6. Sleep'. Dancers crawl under the pyramids, like a laser trap in a heist movie, occasionally rising above the light boundary and shaking as if electrocuted, with the electronic music buzzing with static. Connections could therefore be drawn between the abuse in the former dance and the disturbed sleep in the latter, even though if we were to assume the numbers of the dances indicate their chronological order, that interpretation would be wrong. Thus, the contradiction between the two impressions could say something about our interpretations and the conclusions we draw.

<i>Autobiography</i> © Ryan Buchanan
Autobiography
© Ryan Buchanan

This particular accident of layered meaning could not exist on a night where the algorithm failed to select one of these dances, or put them in the opposite order; nevertheless, it is likely that different conclusions would be drawn from a different sequence of dances. Or it would be if it was not undermined by the more opaque meanings of many of the other dances. While '18. Ageing' begins with three dancers slowly posing in difficult acrobatic positions in the centre of a circle of dancers who step jaggedly in clockwise formation as if indicating the passage of time and '23. Choosing' involves a lot of switching of partners, there is little to tie many of the other dances to their titles. Moreover, several dances are quite similar, with crowded stages, lots of simultaneous action and purposeless thrashing about to loud distorted music, which made it difficult to keep track of any narrative, resulting in a set of indistinct dances.

With greater narrative clarity in the dancing, the unusual structure could have been used to explore ideas of never having the full picture of someone’s life or looking at how we remember past events unchronologically.

This was a marmite production: several audience members left part-way through, but one of my neighbours mentioned this was his third viewing. I was left with mixed impressions. The dancing was excellent, there were some spine-tingling moments during some of the quieter sections, and I like the idea of a life being retold and remembered as a series of out-of-sequence moments. However, I needed to read the programme to understand the DNA concept and, for me, it was too loud and too long. The premise was interesting, certainly a new take on the concept of autobiographies; but, unfortunately, I felt overall Autobiography was a dissatisfying production that promised more than it delivered.

***11