Wayne McGregor has spent his career pushing the boundaries of dance technique and finding superb collaborators to realize a complex artistic vision. He’s a choreographer after the model of Merce Cunningham, prepared to engage with chance procedures. His new Autobiography, first seen last fall in London, has twenty-three parts, but only some of them appear at any given performance; at the Joyce on Tuesday’s opening night, ten were announced via titles projected above the stage. An undisclosed algorithm, based on McGregor’s genetic code, decides which parts are danced at a given show.
The eighty-minute experience has a great deal in common with an evening at a very chic club. Lucy Carter’s lighting designs dazzle (and sometimes blind) viewers, combining bars of LED fixtures with smoke and pin spots that fan sheets of brilliance over the stage and into the house. The ten dancers add and subtract layers of Aitor Throup’s black and white costume elements, layering and tucking gorgeous shirts into the backs of their tights, and at least once stripping down to briefs. Composer Jlin lets loose with grating electronica, scratching like a DJ but including interludes of birdsong, breathing, even Baroque strings.
The design team keeps the entire proscenium alive, from ceiling to floor. Ben Cullen Williams has installed a flying structure of inverted pyramids that fills the upper reaches of the stage, interspersed with panels of LED lights that travel through space, change color, and otherwise charge the air. At one point the pointed objects descend practically to the floor, turning the stage into a cage; the brave dancers scuttle under it. The constantly mutating environment must challenge the performers at least as much as it challenges spectators. There are moments when we are blinded by banks of light, and then suddenly notice some dancers making shadow puppets from their posts in one corner. Screams and shrieks rip through the air, along with occasional incomprehensible syllables and the odd quote from what might be a Samuel Beckett play.
Dealing with a constantly shifting “set list” keeps the wonderful, barefoot movers on their toes. The evening opens with a solo for Jacob O’Connell, bare to the waist, his ribs visible as he writhes to the explosive score, rife with bells and sirens and scraping. A turbocharged ballet technique is the common language of the performers (the others are Rebecca Bassett-Graham, Jordan James Bridge, Travis Clausen-Knight, Louis McMiller, Daniela Neugebauer, James Pett, Fukiko Takase, Po-lin Tung, and Jessica Wright, a group representative of London’s diverse population), but the movement vocabulary is vast and eclectic. What sets this piece apart from McGregor’s earlier work is a willingness to go gentle, to explore — as the supertitles of various sections indicate — concepts like nature, nurture, memory, and aging. He keeps the dancers moving from the floor to the air above their heads. A majority-male ensemble provides power to spare for lifts and delicate, intricate partnering.
The juxtaposition of the hard-edged club atmosphere with these tender themes is the work’s strength. Early sections tend to end with bravura feats: a one-armed walkover, a long-held handstand. But later parts explore powerful feelings for a partner: attention, support, care for flesh and feelings. Wherever you look, a person or a piece of equipment is doing something solid and interesting. The people are not exactly characters or personalities, but vectors of energy and direction that keep the theater alive. Drama, mostly visual, resides in the shapes their bodies make. The run is mostly sold out, but check with the box office for last-minute availability: Autobiography is a stunner.