FAR stands for Flesh in the Age of Reason, the title of Roy Porter’s last, magisterial work (tagline: “How the Enlightenment transformed the way we see our bodies and souls”). Porter’s book is a history of the relationship between flesh and spirit in the 18th century. It’s no surprise that Wayne McGregor was drawn to this subject matter: his hallmark as a choreographer is his relentless curiosity, and he has long combined his intense pursuit of physical innovation with an equally lively interest in the mental aspects of dance, and and the cognitive science of creativity more generally.

FAR / Random Dance © Ravi Deepres
FAR / Random Dance
© Ravi Deepres

FAR does not just “tell the story” of Flesh in the Age of Reason: the interaction of ideas and bodies is far more subtle than that. McGregor and the dancers were thinking intensively about the relationship between spirit and flesh during the choreographic process and, according to McGregor, the dancers are still investigating it during and through the performance itself. The audience is not being shown a solution, or even guided through the problem, but merely presented with a whole panoply of tools with which to approach it. McGregor cares a great deal about the experience of his dancers, but by no means does he neglect his audiences: we are treated to sensory stimulation of all kinds. The eyes are given dance and light and shadow to feast on, all moving incredibly fast and changing constantly (even the dancers’ clothes change). For the ears there is music, which ranges from a Baroque aria to strange, animal-like cracks and howls, as well as the sounds made by the dancers’ bodies and, occasionally, their voices. At some point bone-shaking bass invades our bodies, and there is a viscerality to watching dancing like this which activates the sympathetic nervous system as well as the eyes, making FAR a physical experience even for the audience.

In the after-show discussion, Hannes Koch of rAndom International (the design team who created the ingenious computer-programmed light installation which serves as the backdrop for FAR) described McGregor as a brilliant curator, which I think gets to the heart of his achievement. He has a tremendous ability not only to spark creative processes in his collaborators, but also to select and refine the results. With its complex lighting, installation-backdrop, near-schizophrenic score and frenetic movement, FAR could have drowned meaning in sensory overload; that it does not is testament to McGregor’s clarity of vision.

So how does it work as dance? Well, McGregor’s choreography is always recognisable, but never samey – perhaps we owe that to the Choreographic Thinking Tool software which he and his dancers used in rehearsal to drive innovation. McGregor demands almost ridiculous speed and versatility from his dancers, who change level and direction with the alacrity of firework sparks. Sometimes the positions he creates have been called discomfiting, or even ugly (a response which, I suspect, delights him because it proves he has had an effect), but for all he twists his dancers every which way, their movement is solidly grounded in the fundamentals of ballet grammar – the pointed foot, the illusion of weightlessness – and they themselves are so very strong and sure that any disturbance to an overall impression of beauty is only the momentary frisson of unfamiliarity.

The high points for me were the opening and closing pas de deux. The first was torchlit, shadowy and elementally serious, while the last was tender and hopeful in the moon-like glow of the lighting installation. In between were sections involving all the dancers in ever-recombining groups; they are so energetic and move so fast that it’s a shock when they stand still momentarily and it becomes clear that there are only ten of them. Michael-John Harper’s leggy fluidity is particularly striking, but all are without exception impressive, and in McGregor’s trademark minimalist costumes, their bodies are prominently on display: in the intimate dimensions of the Linbury Studio Theatre there is no forgetting that we are investigating flesh.

FAR has been criticised for not following through in performance what it promises in concept, but that was not my experience. If McGregor’s aim was to stimulate reflection, to force not only his ten dancers, but the thousands of audience members who will see FAR worldwide to ask themselves how their bodies and minds interact, how we convey and apprehend meaning through all our senses, then he succeeds. It became very clear in the after-show discussion that all the creatives involved in FAR are not only talented artists but thoughtful, articulate interrogators of their own praxis. Evidently they took great pleasure in creating FAR, and I certainly took great pleasure not only in watching it, but in mulling it over afterwards – an unusual, but gratifying, experience. If you get a chance, do try it for yourself!