October 11, 2009
By: Euan Ferguson
"Wayne's World: when ballet met science"
Britain's foremost choreographer Wayne McGregor teams up with US scientists to discover the theory of creativity
Of all the creative processes, this is the one I don't get. I can understand, if not necessarily replicate, the way ideas get written down in narrative or poetic form: can fathom with little trouble and much enjoyment the way melody sometimes so successfully (Delius, Bill Evans) suggests a specific emotion or landscape; I even got cubism for about five minutes, then forgot how to manage that. But this: representation through dance. The results are astounding, outstanding, often shocking, often beautiful, sometimes both: but, as for the way they "represent" something: nope. Not a clue. Not a doozie.
Crucially, I'm not the only one trying to understand. Around me, in a large, dark hall at the University of California, San Diego, a team of scientists is doing the same. Earlier this year, in an unprecedented series of intensive sessions, the cognitive science department of UCSD filmed, recorded, interviewed and analysed the early creative choreography of dancers from
Wayne McGregor's Random Dance group. Cognitive scientists spend their time learning how people learn, if that's not a fabulously stupid oversimplification of their alchemic process: from relatively simple stuff, such as studying the most efficient way to count a table of disparate coins, to the big stuff such as this, understanding creativity.
The process was two-way: the dancers gave their time, and let themselves be filmed, and the research scientists went back and analysed their data and then attempted to offer feedback, to tell the dancers, mainly McGregor, what they'd learned about the process of learning.
The results helped to inform the eventual product, which opens at Sadler's Wells in London this week. Dyad 1909 (In the Spirit of Diaghilev), with music by Icelandic composer Olafur Arnalds, is about the Ballet Russes, and Moscow and Paris, and the Shackleton expedition. It's a lot to cram into a sentence, let alone interpret through dance, and I don't know what the results will be like, other than, no doubt, energetic, brilliant and semi-impossible.
But behind the dance much of the point of Dyad will be the way in which it was created. For centuries, science and art have been, particularly on our campuses, at each other's throats. This is nothing less than science finally beginning to "understand" art, and artists for once welcoming dispassionate analysis rather than pretending there's some incredibly complex "creative" process that only they, never mind mere mortals, and certainly never mind scientists with pens in their pockets, could ever hope to understand. McGregor has actively courted this kind of openness and understanding, hoping in turn to learn more himself about how he and his colleagues actually do what they do, and was extremely keen to participate when first approached by the university.
He says: "I think what is vital in genuine collaboration between art and science is the notion that neither is in the service of the other," and, indeed, there's a genuine bonding and equality between him and David Kirsh, the San Diego professor in charge of the project. Each morning, for the duration of this experimental process, the two would meet over coffee and discuss what had happened the preceding day, and what the analysis may have told the scientists.
I sit in on one conversation. There is much talk (McGregor speaks as quickly, cleverly, brilliantly as he dances, but some of the talk is of autonomous choreographic agents and entity transition) that is right over my head (which struggles to function when words such as "multi-modal" are used) but the process itself is understandable, and the pair are enjoying themselves. Kirsh will ask McGregor to explain, for instance, why he chose the language he chose when asking someone to interpret, say, a skyscraper: and, in the answering, McGregor begins to question himself and the whole process of communication. And Kirsh will bounce back off him and ask again, hoping both to learn and to teach. They record these conversations: according to Kirsh, the hope eventually is for "a singular document of the process that will be available to others and analysed for years to come".
Even though it's still slightly bamboozling, soon I'm starting to understand, a little, by seeing it in practice. Up in the splendid campus of UCSD, all willows, ponds, lattes and impossibly healthy students, another rehearsal is soon under way. The cameras are set up, the dancers stretch and sit and occasionally stand to flex, and McGregor begins to talk, and something happens.
He tells tales of the times of the Ballet Russes, and the voyages around Europe, the political tensions and the social interaction. And the dancers, drawn from a variety of countries, mainly eastern Europe, who don't even have English as a first language, will ask questions, clever questions. It strikes me, for the first time, that this is surely what a huge part of modern dance is actually about: simple intelligence. Yes, the bodies go on to do amazing things, but the first stage of the process is understanding what the amazing things might purport to represent. So McGregor, occasionally striding midstage to strike a pose, or drop, or turn and hold, as a new idea comes to him, begins to talk them through ideas of skyscrapers, and of colours.
And then, fascinatingly, the creative rehearsal starts. McGregor asks his dancers to find an interpretation they feel comfortable with: and off into corners they go, and practise being skyscrapers, and being blue, while a haunting musical track plays, again and again. Only after the fourth or fifth playing, when he's satisfied that the majority have found a pose, a sequence, a balance, an interpretation they're happy with, does he ask them to come together: and this is where it really gets interesting.
Within seconds there is near-perfect interaction. One dancer has found a jerky sequence, complex but perpetual; one a more sanguine, lithe construction; one a series of stage strides – and the group perform their own improvisations and sometimes come together to mirror another's, and weave between each other, seamlessly. Already, after this very early rehearsal, you can see something taking form, and being remembered. The memory part particularly interests Kirsh: "We want to understand not just how they interpret something, and how McGregor is getting the information across to them, but how they then retain it."
Kirsh, incredibly enthusiastic about all this, is also something of a kindred soul: he agrees with me that it can be baffling at first. Are we, for instance, as an audience, expected to understand, somehow, that this dance "represents" a colour, or a skyscraper, or is that just stupid question? He laughs. "No, I know exactly. But I don't think we are meant to, no. It's about the experience: about the energy, the skill, the exuberance, but also the fact that something has been communicated, to them, and that their bodies are now interpreting that for us. We really are learning from this. All the team are fascinated by it."
Last week, when I caught up with McGregor back on this side of the world, he told me: "It's an ongoing thing, far from finished, but already we're realising that this collaboration has proved rich enough for both sides to want to continue. I think it's going to help redefine how we "do" creativity. Already, the feedback has taught me some language tricks, and to question the finest way to rehearse a particular dance in order to get the clearest information across. David's questions have helped me define the terms I use."
McGregor, already Britain's leading contemporary choreographer, and none too shoddy a mover in his own right, will bring something doubtless memorable, by definition innovative: difficult, beautiful, celebratory. But there's an equally valid contribution going on, to my mind, in this process he's begun with the measurers, the scientists, the analysts: to see art and science unite and co-benefit so cleverly, so helpfully, so selflessly, is a thing of wonder in itself.