Disturbing the universe

09 November 2009 | By Juliet Burnett

“Do I dare disturb the universe?” T.S. Eliot

Most dictionaries define art as the production, by aesthetic principles, of that which is beautiful. Trust a dictionary to be so curt and clinical. If I were to provide a definition, I would say that art is the expression of the human psyche. Art may express beauty but there will be art that disturbs, or challenges, too. By ‘disturbing’ I don’t mean alarming or upsetting audiences, but confronting and inspiring them with new insights, innovation of form and pushing social parameters. A fundamental element in art – and not just art, but good art – is that it should challenge the viewer.

As dancers we are extremely privileged to be able to use our bodies like a brush on canvas, if you will, as our creative voice. When you consider that we don’t have the assistance of our voices, we’re challenged to articulate in a strong and coherent manner exactly what it is that we are aiming to convey. I have had the good fortune to dance some roles by choreographers whom I admire for their understanding of the human body and its limitations and expressive potential. These choreographers have dared to reinvent classical technique and their works have challenged their contemporaries – namely George Balanchine and Graeme Murphy. And so I couldn’t believe my luck when Wayne McGregor chose me as one of the dancers he wanted to work with for his piece Dyad 1929.

I watched a whole bunch of Wayne’s choreography on YouTube and loved the way he seemed to push the dancers’ bodies to almost distorted extremes. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition of raw, fleshy, primal with creature-like ethereality. When we stepped into the studio with him on the first day, I was sold from the word … well, his first words were “Hi everyone, I’m Wayne”, so let’s go with that. He shook each of our hands and learned our names, initiating the feeling that this creative process was to be a collaborative one. While Wayne was definitely in charge and demonstrating ideas for movements through his own sinewy, eloquent physique, and vocal cues (from wooooaaahhh to zzyyyuppp and all in between), he still responded to the way in which we interpreted his choreographic language. We would rarely leave the studio without a coat of sweat, and perhaps a little bit of a headache – possibly from dehydration, yes, but more likely because Wayne was challenging our minds.

Of course we have to challenge our minds as dancers – we are in the studio every day fine-tuning our bodies. But we also need to go beyond ballet technique and discover our body’s expressive capabilities, whether we’re preparing for an abstract contemporary piece or a classical story ballet. It is just that Wayne was asking us to explore our mental and physical capacity to the extreme and challenging our cognitive skills at the same time. It was an epiphany of sorts for me. I had discovered, in those weeks we worked with Wayne, muscles I had never been in tune with. I pushed my body to fill negative space like a broad brush painting oil on canvas – or a fine needlepoint etching – or the breath of an acrylic spray-can on a wall. This was the result of challenging my thought process, stepping back and asking my body questions and eking out really surprising answers. I guess, you could say, I was disturbing my body. This, I thought after one rehearsal, is what art is about.

And the discovery won’t end after the last rehearsal. It will continue with each show of Dyad 1929. The work is inspired by the enormously significant work of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes’ as well as the exciting technological innovations of the period between 1909 and 1929. Wayne’s choreographic juxtaposition is consistent with honouring Diaghilev’s tradition of innovation, and presents a challenge not just for the dancers – especially classical dancers, using centuries-old technique to convey totally modern themes – but for a ballet audience as well.

Long may artistic innovators like George Balanchine, like Graeme Murphy, like Wayne McGregor, disturb the universe.

Photography Jim McFarlane