Wayne McGregor: Something in the way he moves

Wayne McGregor is a radical choice as resident choreographer of the Royal Ballet, and he's envisaging a dynamic future for the company with an illustrious past, he tells Zoë Anderson

"Becoming the resident choreographer of the Royal Ballet wasn't in my game plan," says Wayne McGregor, smiling. "It was off the radar. But when we talked about it, it made so much sense, in terms of what I could contribute."

McGregor's appointment, announced this month, comes weeks after the success of Chroma, his latest work for the company. The Royal Opera House set lower ticket prices to tempt conservative audiences for a programme with two new works, Chroma and Christopher Wheeldon's DGV. After the first night, there was an immediate demand for tickets.

Until now, the Royal Ballet's resident choreographers have been company men. Frederick Ashton helped to create the company; Kenneth MacMillan and David Bintley trained at its school. McGregor comes from outside, a modern dance choreographer with no ballet training. "I don't have that sort of lineage, I'm offering something other," he says. "I think difference is often quite a dynamic catalyst."

McGregor has worked on a huge range of productions - with his own company, Random Dance; with ballet and modern companies; in musicals and plays; and in the film Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. He has used a range of new technologies, worked on a research project with neuroscientists, and collaborated with heart-imaging specialists. "I get bored very easily," he says, "so I always find challenges to keep myself awake."

For Harry Potter, he cast children without dance training. "I felt that it was very important to have rough, raw, original talent, to have people who had an absolute passion to move but hadn't inherited a lot of the physical mannerisms that some stage schools provide. I'm not saying those stage schools are bad, at all - just that it's a very different type of child that goes through a stage school, compared to a child who has gone to school in east London, with very limited opportunities to dance."

McGregor himself was no stage-school child. Born in 1970, he wanted to dance from the age of eight, after seeing films: "John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever and Grease, all those things. Ballet - or modern dance, or contemporary dance - was not on my horizon at all, I didn't have any opportunity to do it. So I did ballroom, Latin American, disco."

He went on to a degree in choreography and semiotics at University College Bretton Hall. Starting to make his own dances, he was quickly spotted as a future star. John Ashford, director of The Place, sent an early McGregor work on a European tour. "Because I had that exposure, I got a lot of international co-commissions over the years."

He's proud of that range of experience. "I've exercised my choreographic muscle in lots of different contexts. So when I go to La Scala [where he recently directed his first opera] and I have a chorus of 200 people, that doesn't bother me, because I've worked with 200 schoolkids in east London who are worse than the chorus of La Scala. Just!"

In person, McGregor is bright, articulate, communicative. He's ready to debate points, to be combative. "So were you quite surprised at my appointment?" he asks me. "Because you're not really a fan of mine, are you?" The question is perfectly frank, without a trace of complaint or insecurity.

As a dancer, the long, lean McGregor was remarkable for speed and great flexibility. Both those qualities appear in his work. His dancers drive themselves into extreme attitudes, twisting and wriggling, often grasping an ankle to pull their limbs into more drastic lines. With Random and with other companies, McGregor is good at drawing a fullness of movement from his dancers: though the positions may be eye-watering, the dancing can be very juicy.

But I've often found his choreography relentless and hard to read, its larger shapes slurred or lost in fidgeting speed. Chroma, for me McGregor's best work to date, was also his most lucid. It had a distinctive energy, with a delight in details of footwork and phrasing.

Chroma, and the dancers' eager response to McGregor, makes his appointment much less surprising. It's still a major departure for the Royal Ballet. Monica Mason, the company's director, spent the first years of her tenure steadying and strengthening the company. In 2002, she replaced Ross Stretton, who had jettisoned much of the company's signature repertory and was forced out after a single year. Mason brought back the Ashton and MacMillan ballets, emphasising Royal Ballet heritage and raising technical standards. Having taken the company back to its roots, she now makes a radical decision for its future.

A resident choreographer is in a position to make fundamental changes. It's not just that the Royal Ballet will dance more works by McGregor. Mason has already used the Ashton repertory to change the way that the Royal Ballet dances. By concentrating on those ballets, she built a shared style, redefining the company's identity. Now, with McGregor on board, that identity is set to change again. He calls the appointment "a signal of intent. Rather than just one-off pieces, Monica's giving me this process - to develop, over a period of time, a programme of work that will have some impact on the way in which the dancers move."

But this won't be an exclusive relationship. McGregor won't give up Random, his relationship with Sadler's Wells, or his freelance career. "This is not to replace those things. The whole dance world is very different than when Kenneth [MacMillan] was making, or Ashton was making. People have said, 'Oh, resident choreographer - you're going to be just at the Royal Ballet, you'll take up all the slots for new work.' That's a very old-fashioned perception. This is a much more mobile, fluid, multi-modal kind of arrangement. I want to develop a new set of relationships with the building and the organisation, to do things that aren't currently happening."

Such as? "I want to develop more choreographic mentoring, in-house here, to provide more opportunities for young choreographers. A big passion of mine is working in education with young people. I don't really want to talk about the detail of each of those projects, until they're fully formed. But could you do remote rehearsals - which we've done at Random, live from Sadler's Wells - that could be broadcast via the internet into schools? Can you make choreography with them, live from the Opera House; can you encourage young people to participate in the creation of a ballet from beginning to end, but making their own version of it as we go along? There are lots of innovative ways in which participation, access and education can marry if the focus, the central focus, is on making good quality work, whether that be for young people or for the professionals of the Royal Ballet."

McGregor speaks enthusiastically of the company's openness, its readiness to respond to challenges. "Being here, that's great for me, I'm really excited, but I'm hoping also that other choreographers see the Royal Ballet in a different way. In the outside world, people say, 'Oh, the Royal Ballet, it's very formal, very conservative, it must be really hard to work there.' But actually, it's just the opposite, it's not like that at all.

"I'm hoping that the more these types of residency programmes work, we can see that the Royal Ballet isn't just about one thing. It does several things very, very well; it has an amazing, rich and beautiful history, which absolutely I respect, love watching and want to be preserved. But it also has a very dynamic future. Not just with me, but with a range of choreographers. I'd just love to see how I can play my part in nurturing and cultivating that."

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk