Multiverse by Wayne McGregor, dance poetry not for the escapist of mind

Chroma / Multiverse / Carbon Life, 2016

Production photo of Multiverse, The Royal Ballet. © ROH 2016. Photography by Andrej Uspenski, https://flic.kr/p/N8wwc7

The same week I visited Rodin and Dance, I came to London to attend the last performance of Wayne McGregor’s triple bill celebrating his 10 year anniversary as the Royal Ballet’s resident choreographer. The evening featured earlier works Chroma and Carbon Life in addition to a brand new work premiered on November 10, Multiverse. Chroma, wonderfully danced by the Royal Ballet and the guest artists from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, I added to my personal list of McGregor favourites. Some expected Carbon Life with its sharp angle costumes to look dated. Perhaps it will with a next generation of dancers. With so many of the original cast performing, it felt like everyone was having fun celebrating Wayne’s anniversary and the party was just then getting started. It took me a while to make up my mind about Multiverse, so I let my notes sit for a (very long) time. This is where my thoughts have landed.

Multiverse is a collaboration between three artists: Wayne McGregor leads as choreographer, supported by Steve Reich and Rashid Rana in music and set concept, respectively. The trigger for the choreographic development was a 1965 composition by Steve Reich, “It’s Gonna Rain”

 In this music piece, two tapes running in a loop fall regularly out of sync with each other and then come back into sync. During this first part, two male dancers perform the same steps also in and out of sync attempting to exactly follow the cue of the tapes. It is a challenge to the viewer to keep track of it all through the speed of execution, despite the musical score’s repetitiveness. I found that had I not seen Royal Ballet’s insight session online ahead of the performance, its context might have been partially lost (kudos to the Royal Ballet team, for successfully deepening audience engagement).

With this knowledge in hand, one leaps to the metaphor of a “world divided” we so often came across in news reports of 2016, or even of identity in today’s ever connected world. Multiverse is a world where individuals can be manipulated towards connection or disconnection by the off stage persona in charge of the movement algorithm.

The second part of the piece brought forward a constellation of cast stars. Sarah Lamb’s line, fluid to perfection in her movement was a real pleasure to watch. And nothing quite rivals seeing Lauren Cuthbertson, Sarah Lamb, Marianela Nuñez, and Francesca Hayward simultaneously on the stage with excellent partners. However, Rashid Rana’s set design seems to compete for the spotlight. The contrast could not be stronger with the first piece of the evening, Chroma. Where Chroma was understatement for the dancers’ body to shine against a backdrop, Multiverse overwhelms the senses. The puzzle mosaic, alternating tiles from Old Masters, contemporary images of migration and bright colour overshadows the cast, on occasion to the detriment of the action. In this second part, the premise of how music and dance interact is the same, except the eight tapes and group slowly fall out of sync never to recuperate it completely. Some clusters of connection exist in groups of two or three dancers, but this is a journey towards chaos, accompanied by the sound of “Runner”. Perhaps the visual overload is intentional. Mimicking the impression of a world where we are permanently glued to a mobile screen and increasingly unconscious of the diverse human stimulus and needs surrounding us. Or simply projecting back to us a loop of eternal human behaviour repetition. A loop where every waking moment is a conscious choice of universe. To connect and get closer to other humans, or when threatened, retreat to a smaller, individual space of comfort.

If Chroma and Carbon Life offer entertainment and escapism, Multiverse is the very opposite. In 2016 the artistic world swung, perhaps more explicitly, between these extremes. Other works attempting to make a statement about the state of the world included Akhram Khan’s Giselle at the English National Ballet, or Ai Weiwei’s “Freedom” red rubber boats framing the windows of the Strozzi Palace in Florence. Such artists felt the need to engage their audiences in reflection of a contemporary human crisis, not merely entertain. But 2016 was also the year that placed La La Land, escapist to the core, among its most acclaimed and popular movie creations. 

Will I add Multiverse to my list of absolute favourites by Wayne McGregor? I am not sure. The choreography is up to his usual high standard, but personally I found Chroma more satisfying and still fresh from a technical perspective. I have also found other collaborations more consistent between all three elements of choreography, set and music, for example Kairos (in collaboration with Ballett Zürich). I think it will be difficult to appreciate Multiverse without some background. It doesn’t have the immediate appeal of Carbon’s pop score. The technical challenges of dancer synchronisation are likely not enough to warrant broad audience admiration. The more one reads and understands how it was created, the greater variety of interpretations become visible. It feels like a piece to be enjoyed more with a very active mind – memories and associations – than with eyes and ears.

Would I see it again if it comes back to the stage? Absolutely. In an age of immediate consumption, Multiverse’s layers invite to a longer moment of reflection on the world around us. Like the complex construct of a poem grown from a classic form, you get more from it with each new read. Multiverse’s form is a structure built to house meaning. Dance is but one part of this poem’s structure, and how many people can build a great poem with other tools than words?

“Multiverse” does not have a fixed date to return to the Royal Opera House stage, but you can check the Royal Ballet’s schedule here and a list of all upcoming Wayne McGregor Company productions here. Did you see Multiverse or have a personal Wayne McGregor favourite? Add your thoughts below.

Note: The Royal Opera House’s soundcloud account is a treasure trove for fans. Listen to Steve Reich or Wayne McGregor below 

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