‘Wicked smart’ choreographer brings speed, style to Boston
British choreographer Wayne McGregor seems to thrive on ambiguity. Take the title of his ballet “Obsidian Tear,” which gets its North American premiere with Boston Ballet on Nov. 3-12. Is it “tear” as in rending, or as an expression of sorrow? Both, actually. And for McGregor, that’s the beauty of it, as it invites the audience into the interpretive process, asking them to “do a bit of work,” as he puts it, to create their own narratives from the vision he lays before them.
“We are all faced with multiple meanings in life all the time,” he says in a recent Skype interview from London. “I like to create an evocation — hoping to find synchronicity and alchemy. If a work is not didactic, it has potential.”
“Obsidian Tear,” choreographed for an ensemble of nine men, is a major co-production with London’s Royal Ballet, for which McGregor has been resident choreographer since 2006. Sharing a program with Boston Ballet resident choreographer Jorma Elo’s world premiere “Fifth Symphony of Jean Sibelius,” McGregor’s work is set to “Lachen verlernt” for solo violin and the symphonic poem “Nyx” by the renowned Finnish composer/conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen.
The grandeur of Salonen’s music provided the inspiration for “Obsidian Tear.” McGregor heard the premiere of “Nyx” in Paris with the composer at the podium and was immediately taken with it. “I found it viscerally sat in my body and had a kind of Stravinsky-esque accumulation of power,” McGregor recalls. “The music allowed me to see scenes and time unfold in a very interesting way.” He likens Salonen’s music to a dialogue between myth and modernity that seems simultaneously both ancient and of the future.
It was McGregor who suggested the Royal Ballet share the “Obsidian Tear” commission with Boston Ballet, inspired by the latter’s successful staging of his signature “Chroma” in 2013 and 2015. Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen jumped on the idea, an artistic coup for the company. McGregor is credited with transforming the Royal Ballet with his startlingly original choreography, and he is in high demand from ballet companies around the world. In 2011, he was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire for his contributions to dance.
“The way he choreographs is not like anyone else,” says Nissinen. “He is wicked smart — I love his brain — and he is expanding the vocabulary of ballet and stretching technique while bringing in other elements. . . . He is on top of the list of the finest choreographers alive.”
Surprisingly, however, McGregor never formally studied ballet. He was inspired to start dancing at the age of 8 by the big-screen moves of John Travolta, and his first choreography consisted of disco and ballroom routines. “I got hooked on the physical thrill and the adrenaline of dancing,” he recalls.
McGregor formed his own troupe at the age of 21. Company Wayne McGregor now does roughly 100 shows a year and recently opened Studio Wayne McGregor, an expansive new creative space for collaboration across the arts, sciences, and technology. Meanwhile he’s created acclaimed works for companies ranging from New York City Ballet to Paris Opera Ballet and directed movement for opera, theater, and film, including “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” and “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.”
McGregor calls his dance-making a kind of “compulsion” and says his creativity is fueled by endless curiosity and driven by experimentation. “I’m not interested in knowing everything, I’m interested in finding things out,” he says. This attitude has prompted collaborations with a variety of artists and scientists. He’s particularly keen on exploring new technology and the relationship between movement and brain science.
“I like to work with crossing intelligences,” he says. “They push you to make different kinds of decisions and redefine your own practices. It also keeps you out in the real world, to reach out and communicate across boundaries. I love spending time swimming in other people’s domains.”
McGregor believes this kind of attitude can help keep dance both fresh and relevant. “Dance is not a fixed art form but constantly in transition,” he says, “and that’s important, that it comes out of our context now, whether it’s AI or genetics. . . . It doesn’t take away from dance’s phenomenal heritage, but it puts work in dialogue. Repeating the past is not such a good thing.”
Boston Ballet principal dancer Paul Craig, who worked with McGregor during the company’s “Chroma” performances, says the choreographer’s movement style is “extreme, where you’re asking things of your body not in the ballet vocabulary. There’s movement in every part of the body, especially the [torso] — splayed back and open ribs, kind of raunchy.” He calls the choreographer intense, but also “very sweet, very kind, soft-spoken and quiet until it’s time for corrections, and then he’s very passionate.”
McGregor is fascinating to watch in rehearsal. In a video showing him working on “Obsidian Tear” with three Royal Ballet dancers, he demonstrates moves with impeccable style and dazzling speed, a fluidly lithe, elastic rubberiness broken by sharply articulated angles in virtually every part of his tall, lanky frame. He urges the dancers on in a lilting voice; Royal Ballet dancer Ed Watson, who has worked with McGregor for 15 years, calls it “singing the steps.”
McGregor’s unassuming directness is laced with a charming sense of humor. “Lovely, I owe you some money for that move,” he says with a laugh, appreciating a detail contributed by one of the dancers.
McGregor is eager to revisit “Obsidian Tear” with Boston Ballet’s dancers. After the work’s wildly successful premiere by the Royal Ballet last season (several critics called it his “breakthrough”), he wants to see what insights Boston’s dancers bring to it.
“I’m excited to see how they find their own voices inside the work, how they color in the textures, how they express the power of the dance in their bodies,” he says. “I’m not interested in seeing a carbon copy [of the Royal’s performance]. I’m excited to see what the journey of this piece will be like with these amazing new dancers.”
At Boston Opera House, Nov. 3-12. Tickets $35-$164. 617-695-6955, www.bostonballet.org