"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."Reuse content