Modern dance choreographed in real time: Wayne McGregor at TEDGlobal 2012

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Wayne McGregor

Wayne McGregor bounds onto stage wearing a tracksuit. “I’m passionate about creativity,” says the choreographer excitedly. “And it’s something you can teach. You can find out something about your own cognitive habits and use that as a point of departure to misbehave beautifully.”

McGregor, who runs his own company, Random Dance, is here to choreograph and premiere a dance piece on stage. TED’s familiar with premieres, but this is most certainly a first. Initially, however, he gives us some of his own background. Growing up in the 1970s, John Travolta was his role model, and with the support of parents and a dance teacher, McGregor soon began to invent his own dances. “That was the first time I had the opportunity to express my own voice,” he says, and the beginning of his obsession with the technology of the body.

McGregor isn’t only interested in working with dancers. He works with designers, visual artists, economists, anthropologists and people from all sorts of domains to bring their expertise to bear on a different kind of process. After all, he says, “we’re all experts in physical thinking. We all have a body.” It’s just that we normally think about the body only when it’s gone wrong. He wants us to think more generally.

At this point, he introduces us to two dancers, Catarina Carvalho and Paolo Mangiola, who are there to help to devise and perform the TED-inspired dance. “They have no idea what we’re going to do,” he says. “What’s important is how they grasp information and how they think with it.”

What follows is somewhat difficult to describe. McGregor begins to dance out a version of the letter “T.” It’s not particularly literal, but the dancers begin to move behind him, inspired by what he’s doing and, as he puts it, “downloading the movement.” The audience is rapt, watching as the dancers grasp aspects of the phrase and then twist and adapt it. They’re not copying exactly, but taking the movements and owning it within their own bodies. It’s spellbinding.

Wayne McGregor

Now, a duet. “Think of Catarina and Paolo as architectural objects,” he commands. “They’re no longer people, they’re lines.” More improvisation follows before the pair puts the two routines together to practice. It’s not perfect but it is extraordinary.

Finally, McGregor lays down a challenge for the audience: to imagine the word “TED” and then zoom in on the letter “E.” “Make it a space the body can go inside of. What happens if you reach for it with your elbow?” This is such an interesting challenge, presenting us with a new way of thinking about the relation of the brain with the body. This is forcing us to think about our physicality in bold new terms.

Now he puts the three parts together, and the premiere follows, accompanied by McGregor’s own astonishing form of beatboxed rhythm-keeping. It’s a remarkable piece of work, and one the audience acknowledges ecstatically. “I hope you’ll go away and make a dance for yourself,” says McGregor breathlessly. “Or at least that you’ll misbehave more beautifully, more often.”

Photos: James Duncan Davidson