Roy Porter: the Musical!

I went to see some modern dance at Sadlers Wells last night – not my usual evening out but a friend dragged me along (and I’m glad they did: thank you friend!) It was the latest dance from a choreographer called Wayne McGregor, who is, my friend assures me, the hottest choreographer out there – he works with the Royal Ballet, the Bolshoi and, er, Thom Yorke (he choreographed Thom Yorke’s dance in the Lotus Flower video, which I assumed was some kind of seizure).

His latest show, FAR, was pretty avant-garde as Monday evenings go: men and women writhing and contorting against a bank of kinetic white lights (the lights designed by the art collective Random International) while Ben Frost’s electronic score screeches and blips. At times it felt like a Guantanamo interrogation – but it was always interesting. Every gesture, every move, was unusual and startling. There wasn’t a single physical cliche in there.

Afterwards, McGregor gave a talk, and revealed – somewhat to my surprise – that the inspiration for FAR was Roy Porter’s final work of medical and emotional history – Flesh in the Age of Reason. It made sense in retrospect – the gangly, ungainly, almost abortive figures the dancers created at the beginning of the piece, like creatures from Bedlam, occasionally stretching into grace and harmony, then shivering into curled-up Francis Bacon balls of anxiety and paranoia before the wall of examining lights. And the fascination with each other’s bodies, pointing at each other, moving each other’s limbs, referencing the rise in anatomy and the new interest in the material body, the limbs, the innards, dissection. At other times the bodies writhed on top of each other while the music snarled and burped – animal sex in an age of flesh and reason, the frank exploration of each other, the use of each other for pleasure, the absence of God. And the body as object, to be carried, placed, poked, positioned, looked on, suddenly resisting and becoming the body as subject, autonomous, suffering, worthy of dignity (but why, if it has no soul?)

Anyway, below is a video of some of the dancing, and below that is McGregor talking about Porter and also his interest in cognitive science. He says cognitive science helped him understand the construction and deconstruction of habits, including physical habits – he tries to get his dancers to become aware of their physical habits in order to unpick them, which sounds like the ballet version of CBT (and also reminds me of the work of Gurdjieff). Apparently McGregor has worked with cognitive scientists on previous work, and was even involved in an AHRB-funded project on ‘choreography and cognition’. There’s a rather good documentary out there called Thought In Motion which talks about his work – he discusses it a bit in this clip as well. Seems like he’s challenging the idea that dance is somehow non-cognitive, or intuitive, or instinctual etc. He’s insisting it’s a cognitive-physical process.

I wonder what other cultural history classics would make good dances? Elias’ The Civilising Process? Huizinga’s Homo Ludus? Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class? EP Thompson’s Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism? The possibilities are endless…

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