Wayne McGregor’s Atomos asks the question, ‘What is a body?’ An atom, etymologically speaking, is something that cannot be cut and this work is concerned with identifying the irreducible elements that make up the indivisible building blocks of humanity.

It fails, but the failure is interesting. McGregor faces a similar problem to his predecessor the Roman poet Lucretius in his poem De rerum natura (‘On the nature of things’), in that the vocabulary of his chosen language (in McGregor’s case, dance) is resistant to being broken down into its smallest constituent parts and unsuited to pinning down or precisely defining ideas and concepts.

The creative starting point is the 1980s film Blade Runner, which McGregor and his collaborators have endeavoured to break down into its elements by various means. Individual frames are used to inspire movement; an analysis of colour tones informs the costume design and lighting, and then further kinaesthetic data taken from the dancers’ bodies is fed into the process. Some of this works and some of it doesn’t. The way that the lighting, designed by Lucy Carter, plays upon the fabric of the costumes by Studio XO is very beautiful, but the costumes themselves (crop tops, gym knickers and baggy leotards) look like mid-twentieth century beachwear. The musical score is by the successful collaboration Winged Victory for the Sullen, Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie and Dustin O’Halloran.

I find it very difficult to describe the dance, with its small precise contorted movements, huge extensions and exciting dynamics, perhaps because McGregor and his company have created their own movement vocabulary. It is interesting that while he does not restrict himself by using a recognisable dance system, McGregor says that he builds up his own libraries of movements on which he can draw as and when he needs to do so.[1]

In his search for new ways of moving, McGregor has developed and employed a digital device, Becoming, as a tool for provoking new movement creation in ways that I do not fully understand. It is hard to see, though, how even this virtual presence in the studio could elicit a similarly detached movement response in a dancer because dancers instinctively transform even the smallest most elemental step or gesture investing it with meaning. No two dance movements are ever exactly the same.

I admired the performance of this work, but it did not move me emotionally. It was a fine and highly professional collaboration between choreographer, designers, musicians and dancers, but to me it felt like the outcome of a clinical investigation. It seemed to be an experiment in analysing dance movement and expressing the results of that analysis at the same time; it uses data to inspire creativity while also using the creative process to generate data. This is not necessarily intrinsically contradictory, but it is certainly extremely complicated and there seemed to be too many ideas, and a lack of a clear overarching rationale. It was as if the creative process were more interesting to all those involved than was the end result.

But nothing can take away from the fact that the magnificently individual dancers delivered superb performances, and were also extremely generous with their time. Afterwards, there was the only post-show talk I have ever attended in which the entire cast came on stage and took part, and almost everyone I spoke to had a favourite dancer by the end (mine were Catarina Carvalho and Daniela Neugebauer).

Maggie Watson

12 March 2015

[1] Wayne McGregor in conversation: ‘Dance and Neuroscience’, presented by DANSOX, St Hilda’s College, Oxford 10 March 2015