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And now, a break from your unscheduled programming

2008-04-11 22:06:00
Webcowgirl, while trying to take notes for a review of Wayne McGregor's "Random Dance", noted, with mild frustration, that she "couldn't find the words". As such, I've been deputised to attempt to review a dance performance, something of a first for this journal.

Indeed I suspect it would have been impossible to find the words in this piece; it's defined purely by numbers. It is, I suspect, somewhat rare in having as its ideal audience mathematicians with an appreciation for beauty.

The piece was mathematical, energetic, powerful, captivating, and frequently humorous. Some of the jokes are of extreme subtlety and there are small riddles and references scattered throughout the piece, some so subtle that, in a suitably Heisenbergian twist, they would probably vanish if studied too closely.

The piece starts with an early zootrope-style movie of a running dog; one of the first technical experiments to scientifically study the mathematical properties of animal movement. It's a clever reference, and a gentle introduction into what's to be expected later on.

The stage is framed by what appear to be airfoil-shaped screens on crane-like mounts; these simple levers are used to great effect throughout the piece as projection screens for abstract mathematics, probablities, the human form and the flight of birds. When they rise later in the piece they cast a knowing glance at the Angel of the North, one of the most acclaimed (not to mention both vast and controversial) pieces of industrial art in the UK. The music is varied, powerful; intially baroque and thumping electronic later as it evolves. The lighting is stunning and beautifully designed.

Of course I've not yet mentioned the dancers, and this is intentional. They are a part, the focus, of the piece, but they are far from being its entirety. They are, it must be said, of extreme skill and incredible physique and imagination. They are dressed extremly simply in close white vests and black briefs which allows them to strip down (wordplay intended) to their raw and efficient forms. They dance mathematically; not rigidly, but with the full flexibility of numbers at play, of geometric curves and the algorithms that determine the flight of birds (the sudden on-screen metamorphosis of a string of differential equations into a flock of birds later in the piece is a humorous confirmation of this analysis).

There is, it has to be said, a robotic aspect to the dance, but it is not so much the sharp angular movement of a pre-programmed machine so much as the tenative, reversing movements of a learning intelligent system, reminiscent of cybernetic experiments in which robots teach themselves to walk (and here, perhaps, to dance). The smoothness of the movements increases through the piece to a point of particular monchromatic humour, but the mathmatical or engineer's eye will spot patterns in the energy and action of each small dance action or entanglement, and there's a temptation to try and work out the numeric rules which seem to lurk just below the surface.

These rules later take centre stage when classic geometric figures are projected onto the floor, becoming part of the performance; the dancers move within them, interact with them, are covered in them, following for example the sequence of the Golden Spiral. The effect of a dancer writhing within the squaring-the circle problem, shading lines flowing across his body, is frankly mesmerising. And there's a definite erotic tone in there too; McGregor (and the dancers) are clearly not shy of near-sexual interactions between male dancers, transferring incredible energies.

A few more words can round out this report; but they are hard to place in grammatical context. It is abstract, theoretical, organic, mesmering; certainly collosally demanding of the dancers, but ultimately it is a unique, intense and numeric experience.

Tags: life reviews