The Australian Ballet

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The Music and McGregor

TAB INSTRUMENTS OF DANCE Melb 22 photo Jeff Busby 3107

Elijah Trevitt and Jake Mangakahia
Photo Jeff Busby

Wayne McGregor, choreographer of Obsidian Tear, wants to let the body find its own way to the music.

Obsidian Tear was born from a visceral reaction to music. McGregor, a self-confessed fan of the composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, was at the premiere of his symphony Nyx. It hit him hard: “I got it in the stomach, not just in the head,” he says. “I knew straight away that I had to make a response to it.” This makes it all the more surprising that when came into the studio to make his response – Obsidian Tear – he didn’t play Salonen’s music while shaping the movement.

McGregor may begin his studio process by playing the dancers another piece of music altogether. He says, “I like to use music that inspires a certain state in the body, and that connects with the score I already know. It might be sound, or environment, or a different piece of music, but it sets the physical tone, and then we work on that. But I don’t work to that music either, I don’t put phrases to it. I like the body to find its own musical literacy.” Initially, he will let the movement unfold without immediately battening it down into an established structure.

That’s not to say he works in silence. Anyone who has watched McGregor create on his dancers is familiar with his vocabulary of sounds: “Shwaaa! Baaay! Wahhh! Ba-da!” It’s called sonification, and it’s a way of creating acoustic images, so that he can convey what he wants without interrupting the flow with explanations or demonstrations. “Words, or them watching, can get in the way. For some reason, it feels most direct.” (Incidentally, sonification is amazingly universal. In studies conducted by cognitive neuroscientists at Cambridge University, in which McGregor took part, groups of people responded to sounds he made with the same kinds of movements.)

Watching Obsidian Tear, it’s hard to believe that the movement wasn’t made to Salonen’s music: the two seem so organically matched. It makes more sense when you know that even though the music may not have been playing in the studio, it was there – in McGregor’s head.

“A piece starts years in advance,” he says. “I can read music: I study the score in detail with the conductor or the composer, that’s something I do in all my preparatory work. When I go in the room, it’s not that I don’t know the music, it’s that I’ve already ingested it. I know what the phrasing is, I know what the organisational principles are, which frees me up when I get into the studio, because I don’t have to be learning about the music while I’m in there.”

Towards the end of the process, when the score is integrated with the movement, there’s little adjustment needed. “I don’t have to cut the movement – it’s already got its own organisational form, and then we find the best place, musically, for it to sit. It’s part experimentation, it’s part already knowing the music very well, and part serendipity – seeing the way the body has organised itself, then listening to something of Esa Pekka’s and realizing that there’s synergy there, or there’s contrast, or there’s counterpoint. But it has to come from a really forensic analysis of the score: where are his motifs reversing, where are there separations, where is the counterpoint? I might not follow Esa-Pekka’s structure conventionally, but I know what it is and understand where we have spaces to interact.”

One of the ways McGregor worked his way inside the score was watching Salonen conduct it. His “fluid, visceral” movements were in themselves an inspiration, a way to read the energy of the piece. “I think people assume that I don’t read music or that I don’t play instruments or that I don’t love music, in a traditional way,” McGregor says. “I do. I just think of it differently. I want the body to find the music, rather than pushing the body into a certain frame initially – from there, we are all free.”