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The Boston Globe

Theater & art

Wayne McGregor on John Travolta, Balanchine, and ‘Chroma’

“I see working with the body almost like calligraphy, or graphic sketches,”  says British choreographer Wayne McGregor.

Bill Greene/Globe Staff

“I see working with the body almost like calligraphy, or graphic sketches,” says British choreographer Wayne McGregor.

Only 43, British choreographer Wayne McGregor has already had a full career. He’s the artistic director of Wayne McGregor Random Dance, the resident company at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London. He’s also the resident choreographer of the Royal Ballet. He’s been a research fellow in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Cambridge, and he’s worked with economists, anthropologists, computer scientists, and neurobiologists. Oh, and he was the movement director for “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” Not bad for a kid from Stockport, England, whose initial role model for dance was John Travolta in “Grease” and “Saturday Night Fever.”

This week, he’s in town to rehearse Boston Ballet in his 2006 piece “Chroma,” which will be the centerpiece of a program, itself titled “Chroma,” that starts with George Balanchine’s “Serenade” and concludes with Balanchine’s “Symphony in C.” He sat down to talk after his first day of rehearsal with the company.

Q. What was it about John Travolta’s dancing that got your attention?

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A. I just liked the freedom it seemed to suggest. I had a lot of energy as a child, and my parents were quite happy that I found something to channel it into. I was in a singing choir, and I played the trumpet, I played the tenor horn, I had piano lessons, dancing lessons. I was almost into everything.

CHROMA

Boston Opera House, 617-695-6955.

Performing company:
Boston Ballet
First performance:
May 2
Closing date:
May 12
Ticket price:
$39-$142
Company website:
http://www.bostonballet.org

Q. The word most often used to describe you seems to be “extreme.”

A. I think when other people write “extreme,” what they mean is it’s different. My job as a choreographer is to work with these phenomenal dancers in finding the body challenging things to do. I see working with the body almost like calligraphy, or graphic sketches. I don’t really obey what people might consider the necessary rules of dancing. It’s not that I’m trying to break the rules. I just don’t think about them as a boundary.

Q. Tell us a little about “Chroma”: the title, the Joby Talbot/White Stripes score, and the set by John Pawson.

A. “Chroma” started because I was very interested in working with the minimalist architect John Pawson. One of the things I love about his buildings, and the things he does about space, is that he reduces things to their essential form and creates a canvas in which bodies move. And I’m talking about his regular buildings, not just here on the stage. I wondered how he would be able to create a space for me that was empty but full at the same time. Empty but charged. So that was the conversation with John.

Joby had been working with these White Stripes orchestrations, and I really loved them. I felt that a combination of those and Joby’s own music together would create a really interesting driver. It has fantastic atmosphere and color and rhythm.

I titled the piece “Chroma” because I was interested in this absence from white, how you can work with the tonality of a body to give you grammar and structure. How a particular skin tone next to a different skin tone would create some kind of tension. So all other color out, only work with skin tone and whiteness. It was an experiment, really. The costumes are the dancers’ skin tones. It wasn’t just bring the costumes from London. The costumes here had to be remade to match these dancers’ skin tones.

Q. What were you looking for in your first day with Boston Ballet?

A. The first day is always a nerve-racking moment! When I come, I try to give a sense of the spirit of the piece. It’s not just the steps, it’s how you think about them, how you think and organize movement so that when you’re dancing, it’s as if you were speaking.

I also try to look at the dancers and see what they do that’s different from the other ways in which I’ve seen the piece done. For me it’s important that they don’t try and replicate the original cast or the cast that they might have seen on video or YouTube. The fun and the interest is how you contribute in a way that no one else can. So I have to help the dancers imprint their own sensibility on that role. I want it to look different — I’d be disappointed if it looked the same. I think the expressivity is really interesting when it comes from a deep place. And only the dancer can do that.

Q. Your works and Balanchine’s frequently turn up on the same program. Why do you think that is?

A. I’m a big fan of Balanchine’s. And I love being in a Balanchine program because I feel there’s real clarity and precision in the way you have to watch Balanchine and engage with him. It’s like a bath for the senses, or a shower for the senses.

And I think perhaps there’s a connectedness. Balanchine was making work that was very off-center and strangely articulated, and challenging himself to play and experiment and invent. Everything feels so essential. You don’t look at a Balanchine piece and think, “Oh, if only he had done such and such.” You just don’t. And I find that about the best modern architecture, you feel it can only be that way, there’s no alternative. I guess that’s something I would aspire to do. I don’t think I’m there at all; I’m not comparing myself to Balanchine. But I would love to inherit some of those qualities.

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffreymgantz@gmail.com.

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