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
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • 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.

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat