Abstract yet poignant, Wayne McGregor’s piece FAR opens and closes with a romantic, neo-balletic pas-de-deux at Théâtre Maisonneuve, Montréal. In between, however, lies a lexicon of movement and emotion that defines his choreographic style and suggests a pseudo-creation myth of epic proportions.

Inspired by the historian Roy Porter’s book Flesh in the Age of Reason, which deals with changing views of the body in the Enlightenment, McGregor has been exploring – in FAR as well as other works such as Entity (2011) – the ways in which body and mind interact. In establishing a new framework for the creative process, McGregor questions the ways in which the body expresses or inhibits an intention, and how movements, sounds and verbal language are used to incarnate concepts. 

FAR is based on ideas and intellectual curiosity; McGregor has also been working with neuroscientists to further his understanding and expression of the mind-body connection. Perhaps the postmodern coldness in parts of FAR is due to the cerebral nature of McGregor’s project, his desire to create a piece of dance about dance, movement about movement. That being said, the vast and impressive range of physicality evoked a sense of wonder, and, in the end, the feeling of having witnessed some kind of emotional journey.

The piece opens with four dancers dressed in black holding live torches, while two dancers dressed in nude outfits enact the opening duet. From the beginning, McGregor reveals his uncanny ability to combine incredible strength (oh to have those thighs!) with almost supernatural suppleness and extreme elegance. As the piece progresses, soloists and duos further explore the language of the body: one male dancer isolates chest and hips to the point of near-deformity; another’s extremities tremble and shake; back, shoulder, chest, and thigh muscles ripple under the stage lights. A group of female dancers brings sensuality to life; two women curl into fetal positions like eggs, balanced on tiptoes. Much of the first half of the performance feels like it’s taking place under water, like sea anemones undulating in the waves, being tossed about by strong currents and just as quickly being washed back to where they had been.

The soundtrack highlights the primordial aspects of the work. After the opening Italian opera aria, which mirrors the beautiful yet almost-too-perfect nature of the opening duet, Ben Frost’s electronic soundtrack kicks in, along with a huge panel of LED lights at the back of the stage, designed by Lucy Carter. Both soundtrack and lighting are stunningly effective: the music enhances the psychology of movements, providing clues as to any underlying meaning or emotional content (both quite elusive in this work, it must be said), while the lights flicker in various patterns, like neural pathways bringing limbs to life.

The sense of innocent, primal discovery is disrupted partway through the work, when more and more dancers, both male and female, appear onstage, inevitably erupting into episodes of minor violence, implied jealousy, various pairings and threesomes, and a sudden move toward the pedestrian. Dancers walk, push each other, karate chop their rival’s back. At one point they form male-female pairs, silhouetted against the light panel, creating hieroglyphic friezes with their arms.

There comes a moment when the lights outline digital numbers, which steadily increase, as does the sound and the activity on stage, and then finally begin to decrease. At this point I began to wonder if this very abstract work is telling a tale after all – a tale of humans and their evolution and inevitable decline, or, perhaps, simply the tale of a life lived with its myriad experiences and emotions. Periods of increased lightness, where the movements became more technical, neoclassical and symmetrical, alternate with periods of heaviness and increasing chaos. The almost constant devolution towards disruption made me wonder if McGregor was implying that we are gluttons for our doom, that we can’t bear, or are simply unable, to stay in a too-perfect world for too long.

Although bits of emotion glimmered through the choreographic virtuosity, I remained more impressed than moved... until the very end. At the end of the final duet, a male dancer places his female partner on her back on the floor, laying her arms gently at her sides, and backs away cautiously, looking over his shoulder in uncertainty. The sudden end to activity, the resolute finality and loss brought about by death, retrospectively made all of the movement and activity and variety so very powerful: for when movement ceases, so does life.