On an empty smoked-filled stage, Jacob O’Connell’s solo began the fifteen-part “Autobiography.” His movements were reptilian and articulate, his développé effortless, quickly dissolving into something gritty, as Lucy Carter’s stark white lighting washed down like a heavy mist. He danced shirtless to Jlin’s music design of echoing sounds of dripping water mixed with electronic noise. His solo promised an intimate and personal dance performance, but like all things by the anarchist choreographer Wayne McGregor, every segment, every move, was as rapidly destroyed and sacrificed for something immediately new and complex. All traces of emotion, vulnerability or sentimentality were nonexistent in his “Autobiography,” a platform one might think would allude to those very qualities and self-revelations, separating this dance from his other successes. But, O’Connell’s supple and embodied solo instantly gave way to five aloof dancers, who moved so quickly and confrontationally to a club-music-beat that any hope for something personal was immediately squashed.
On closer observation, “Autobiography”, as written in the program, had the letters “bio” printed in bold, referring more to biorhythms and in this case, McGregor’s genetic code, rather than storytelling. McGregor is using his DNA as an algorithm to determine which parts of the dance are performed at a given show, not unlike Merce Cunningham using divination sticks to determine his choreography. “Autobiography” was created with a total of 23 segments, which must have something to do with the 23 pairs of chromosomes that each human cell contains, but only 15 of those were presented for this performance.
Each segment featured the stunning talents of the company in a variety of configurations with duets by women, duets of men, groups of five, men only ensembles, the full company, and, solo exposés that seemed like a curtain call but was not. Throughout, the dancers were smartly clad in Aitor Throup’s black and white clothing, all in black leggings or shorts, with some wearing crisp white shirts, others shirtless with white shirts tied around their waists. Everything was tastefully minimal, from costumes, stage design (Ben Cullen Williams), to the robust and tireless choreography. Everything was picture perfect, including the diverse ethnicities of the company that ironically, in this utopian aesthetic becomes homogenized into one race. And, as if enforcing this idealistic world through some sort of autocratic aesthetic Carter’s stark strobe lighting sometimes flashed through the dancers, blinding the audience as if getting shock-therapy. At other times her lighting scrutinized the stage from above, like search lights scanning a detention camp. In a later segment, Williams’ pyramid grid descends from the ceiling, squishing dancers to the floor in yet another display of visual authoritarianism and incarceration.
Astonishing? Yes! Was the entire piece glorious in execution, both in staging and by the extreme talent of the dancers? Yes! Then why does one feel disengaged from this extraordinary spectacle? Why does one feel awed and yet untouched by this exhibition of curated perfection? What is it that actually breathes life into our DNA that makes it more interesting than just a cosmic mathematical equation? “Autobiography” is like the perfect romantic partner that you can’t stand to take your eyes off, can’t give up the great sex, but ultimately leave because something essential is missing.
David E. Moreno