Grids are the visual design motif of Wayne McGregor’s Atomos, which world premièred this past week at Sadler’s Wells. The 65-minute ballet opens with its ten dancers in a square of light downstage right. They tangle, untangle and re-entangle, while the electronic music – titled A Winged Victory for the Sullen and composed by Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie and Dustin O’Halloran – settled the performance into a form that might easily be called dance for the digital age.

Wayne McGregor | Random Dance, Atomos © Ravi Deepres
Wayne McGregor | Random Dance, Atomos
© Ravi Deepres

That this is a form, even a genre, is clearly stated in its characteristic movement gestures that are unceasing, rapid, angular, lacking narrative and tonal affect – in other words, abstract. But not abstract in the way that painting of the 50s was abstract, for example, discarding the figurative motifs of traditional painting for gestures of colour that were an extended tracing of the artist’s emotional energy; those marks were meant in turn to evoke an emotional response within the viewer.

Unlike painting, dancing can never unloose itself from the body, which for humans is the ultimate object and subject. It has become an obsession of the digital age. For in a world obsessed with binary calculations and pure quantities of mathematical equations, the body becomes a thing apart. It was the softness of the human body’s outline and volume than kept the ballet’s abstract movement from being mechanical.

In this ballet, emotions seem extraneous, however. What we watched was the body’s play with its limitations of joint, bone and sinew within space. Movements were extreme, at the borders of flexibility and strength. These are exceptional dancers, and there is hardly an ounce of fat on them: it’s all muscle. Gravity, however, was seldom challenged in the traditional balletic way: there were no showy lifts, no lofty grands jetés with breathtaking ballon. Rather, gravity was challenged by endurance – by continuous restless human dynamism.

In abstract ballet, repetition often becomes a nexus for emotion, if not narrative. But even repetition is underplayed in McGregor’s choreography. Although dancers do canon each other, these repetitions are not sustained: they never last more than a few bars, and the dancers who mirror each other’s movements are often separated and in the midst of other dancers, so that the repeated movements give the viewer the impression that the twin actions are seen “out of the corner of the eye”, like passing shadows that may or may not have been there. The technique adds to the overall feeling of restlessness.

The effect, like the name of McGregor’s company, feels random. If anywhere, this is where emotion lies in the work, and the emotion can be described as an intellectual pleasure. Or a sense of wonder at the changeability of human endeavour. Or the satisfaction in viewing how the diversity of life can be found in the small ways in which the foot shifts its weight from heel to toe or the arm reaches skyward and stops, leaving the dancer standing like a child asking a question in a classroom without chairs.

The grid, that mathematical rendering of space, is repeated in the stage design, which is of two enormous grids made of monochromatically coloured squares, which are differentiated from each other by shade rather than hue. Depending on the excellent lighting design by Lucy Carter, the coloured grids appear and disappear. Carter also designed the lighting for McGregor’s Chroma, one of the subtlest and loveliest designs to grace the ballet stage.

Besides the electronic, mostly sound-field music, there were several scenic and film effects, created by Ravi Deepres, that had a distinctly techo edge. About 20 minutes in the programme, seven or eight screens slowly descended into the upper space of the stage. We had been provided with glasses to watch the 3D events projected on these screens. They weren’t the old movie house 3D glasses though – one lens green, the other red. Everything looked mostly normal through their clear lenses, but they transformed the images on the screens strikingly. At times coloured squares seemed to grow in the midst of the screens moving outward as if they would fly into your face. Fluorescent green bees grew into computer-screen green globes, which in turn became red dots that seemed to hang suspended somewhere in front of the dancers and over the audience, when in fact they were behind the dancers. It was a little showy and definitely distracting from the on-stage action. But it was an apt metaphor for our increasingly digital world.