The luck of the algorithm: Wayne McGregor’s Autobiography

Company Wayne McGregor at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
August 12, 2018

David Mead

Autobiography. A book about a person’s life, written by that person, says the dictionary. That makes a dance autobiography a dance version of the same. And that’s just what Wayne McGregor’s Autobiography is: a choreographic exploration of memories, old writings, art, music, choreographers and more that have been important in his life.

But don’t go looking for a linear narrative, because you won’t find it. Instead, McGregor constructed 23 volumes (perhaps better seen as chapters) each inspired by something that has been important to him. Using a specially-written algorithm, a number of events from the 23 are selected randomly for each show, as is the order of performance (save for the fact it always starts with 1 and ends with 23). The algorithm is also programmed never to repeat selections. Thus, each show is an autobiography, but one that is rewritten every time, always different.

However, the viewer has no reference point save the title of each section. We are told the number of each section, 22 Remember, 12 Three Scenes, 19 Ageing for example, but the connection between title and dance is often hazy at best. Unlike in a book, there is no shared language and if one seeks to decipher meaning, it is a struggle, making Autobiography abstract. That doesn’t particularly matter because each section is fascinating simply as movement but it is important to see the work on those terms.

The opening Avatar, a male solo sets the tone of undulating sweeping dance, limbs reaching and extending. Remember, like one or two other sections, is full of ballet references. As always, the clarity of the dancers, even at speed, is outstanding. Among the best sections is Instinct, full of virtuoso dance, especially for the men, who litter their performance with multiple pirouettes and super leaps.

Company Wayne McGregor in autobiographyPhoto Andre Uspenski
Company Wayne McGregor in autobiography
Photo Andre Uspenski

McGregor shifts between ominous and moody to light and playful. Those sections with less dancers or with one couple or trio as the focus of attention tend to be more engaging. Among my personal favourites are Ageing, which opens with six dancers pacing slowly around a central trio like the hands of time ever passing. Patterns later shift and morph but the whole section is highly appealing. As indeed is Traces, in which a woman watches a man and another woman dance, before he switches partners. It’s the one part where there is a clear hint of narrative.

It all takes place in the sort of misty haze with which we often remember, although McGregor and lighting designer Lucy Carter occasionally have the lights descend as in (Dis)Equilibrium. Particularly impressive lighting comes in World, in which blades of light emit from the back of the stage, cutting across the performers and out into the audience.

Costumes are monotone, largely black with grey bra tops for the women, plus the occasional touch of white. The men are generally bare from the waist up.

American electronica composer and musician Jlin’s soundscape is full of different moods, although like the choreography, none seem to be repeated. But there are surprises here too, not least birdsong and courtly music at different times.

When I saw Autobiography at Sadler’s Wells in London a few weeks ago, I wasn’t especially taken with it. It failed to connect. But on this occasion, it appealed much more, I suspect because of the way the sections fell together. Indeed, the last 40 minutes absolutely flew past. That’s the luck of that algorithm, I guess.

Wayne McGregor’s Autobiography is at the Festival Theatre to August 13. Visit for details and tickets.