Wayne McGregor brings his incredible skills to Hong Kong - but will visionary British choreographer be back?
McGregor, the leading British dance creator of his generation, talks to Fionnuala McHugh on a recent visit to Hong Kong to hold workshops with local dancers
Wayne McGregor looks like an unusually skinny soccer player; the tracksuit, the shaven head, the earring and a certain loose-limbed ease suggest the Beautiful Game.
It's true that he knows about deft footwork and he's keen on team play but his skills aren't displayed on a pitch. He's a British choreographer - some would say the leading one of his generation (he's 45) - and he and his team spent last week in Hong Kong doing workshops that culminated in a "dance dialogue" at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts.
He was invited here by the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority (the British Council was a co-partner). McGregor, as well as being the Royal Ballet's resident choreographer, has his own company, Random Dance, which he founded in 1992. He clearly embraces the concept of random but this WKCDA association certainly seems somewhat … unexpected.
"I knew a little about West Kowloon," he says. He knows Michael Lynch, WKCDA's recently departed chief executive, from Lynch's time as head of London's Southbank Centre, "so I'm sort of keeping an eye on it".
When he met Anna Chan, WKCDA's head of artistic development for dance, last year and she began making overtures, he realised there were "synergies in aspiration".
"Our company is moving into Olympic Park next year, and we've had challenges," he says, cheerfully.
Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, as it's officially known, is the site in east London where the 2012 London Olympics took place; it's administered by the London Legacy Development Corporation, which has had its own tussles with the local community.
"I thought I'd be in Olympic Park in 2012 but it takes time to do it properly. I think people get too bound up in time. By 2021, this project could be in full swing."
Two WKCDA representatives who are present (and this writer) exchange wistful glances and McGregor, who's a very smart man - he studied semiotics as well as dance at Leeds University - adds: "What it comes down to is working with people, and getting engaged in creative possibilities to change thinking."
He's too canny, and surely too aware of WKCDA's unpredictable history, to signal whether this is going to be a long-term collaboration or simply a one-off.
"We're invited to see if we're useful," he says. Usefulness, he agrees, can work both ways. "I'm curious to see what we can get back. I don't do these trips that often. This is rare but it's because I'm really interested in the fact that we're focusing on creativity, that it's a big building project and that there's a programme of initiatives feeding and foraging in different ways."
You can see why a diverse "feeding and foraging" programme might appeal. McGregor has always choreographed a pas de deux in which he takes the concept of dance and leaps with it beyond the fence of public perception. In the process, he has teamed up with cognitive scientists as a "super-useful" way to chart the psychology of the creative process. He's had his notebooks analysed so that he can challenge himself by upsetting ingrained creative habits. Random Dance includes a social anthropologist who's spent two decades studying tribes in Papua New Guinea, and is, therefore, unfazed by dancers' strange rituals. And he's worked on West End plays and films including Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and next year's Tarzan.
His resistance to professional enclosure is so hot-wired that when someone at last Saturday's public forum mentioned McGregor's background, he cried, "I don't come from classic dance or contemporary dance! I come from Manchester!"
He likes to emphasise his range: by four, he was doing English country dancing, then gymnastics, then long-distance running. He grew up to be a fan of John Travolta and the sort of boy who spent hours writing code for his computer. His parents, who knew nothing about dance, encouraged diversity but only if it came with discipline. That gave him confidence.
"They always said, 'Have a go! Have a go!' But I wasn't allowed to have a go and then stop or worry about failure. So you become fearless. And that's important for this project, in a city as complex as Hong Kong - without failure, it wouldn't be an agent for change, it wouldn't have the traction it needs."
He divides professional opinion. "I know in London there are certain critics who can't stand me," he says. "I always read the critics, I think it's very, very important to be engaged in that way."
The reviews, like his work, can be an emotional roller coaster. In July, his new ballet Tree of Codes, based on Jonathan Safran Foer's book, faced some damning comments ( The New York Times: "all wow and no substance") but two months earlier his Woolf Works, a life of Virginia Woolf created for the Royal Ballet, had excellent reviews.
Alessandra Ferri, now aged 52, specifically came out of retirement to dance Woolf; and - spoiler alert - Woolf's suicide note was read by Gillian Anderson. (McGregor, who has worked with an extraordinary range of artists, has a stellar contacts book. He says Anderson did it "as a present" and insisted on about 25 takes so that it would be as perfect as possible.)
Some of Ferri's rehearsals with McGregor are on YouTube. They convey a love of language that's also evident in his 2012 TED talk in which, wittily, the letters T, E and D are danced. And yet, as becomes evident in last Saturday's demonstration at the APA with 18 dancers from the Hong Kong Dance Company and Hong Kong Ballet, he also uses non-verbal sounds to impart a sense of shape.
Wah! Tak! Tak! Umm! Mee! Houm! Uh! … McGregor bobs to and fro in his tracksuit, like a coach uttering an unknown language, while the Putonghua and Cantonese-speaking dancers try to knit mind and movement, flexing their bodies in unexplored ways.
For rigidly trained dancers, more used to what he calls the slave/master school of choreography, this isn't easy. McGregor's work is renowned for its high kinetic energy and extreme fluidity. His week's workshops can provide only a hint of his world's possibilities.
"Super-clear! Super-lucid! Super-articulate!" he instructs. He takes one dancer, sketches the invisible air around her with his hands and says: "Remember how we talked about positive/negative space? Think of the negative space. Focus on that."
West Kowloon, after all, is waiting.