Arts ballet review

Humanity without its core

Wayne McGregor combines dance and technology for a thought-provoking commentary on humanity and society

8600 torri yearwood   atomos production shot. photo by ravi deepres 3
Dancers reach everywhere yet nowhere at the same time in 'Atomos,' directed by Wayne McGregor.
Ravi Deepres

Company Wayne McGregor
Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston
Boch Center Shubert Theatre
May 4 – 5

Wayne McGregor is a fascinating choreographer. His genre of dance is most often referred to as contemporary ballet — but he himself has never been trained in ballet, and instead traces his roots back to ballroom dancing and disco. As such, his movements know no bounds, nor do they even have a language; McGregor directs his dancers using appellations like “wey,” “tyum,” or “hah,” which have a faint correlation with various adages or ports de bras, but mostly correspond to a specific style of energy and emotion that his dancers learn over time. The result is a set of physiological utterances that emerge from his dancers like a primal expression of humanity.

Company Wayne McGregor is perhaps where one can see McGregor’s work in its truest form. While McGregor has produced multiple award winning pieces for companies around the world (especially in his role as the Resident Choreographer at The Royal Ballet), he created his own company in 1992 as an avenue for his most experimental work. Its dancers live and breathe his choreography and are perhaps the most truthful vessels of his ideas.

At first glance, Atomos feels like an experiment that he might have taken a tad too far. Dancers’ limbs wend around their bodies as if having a mind of their own, and dancers flow into and around one another as if unable to grasp the concept of tangible matter. Adding to the physical milieu is a visual one of 3D animations (ranging from numbers to bugs to factory chimneys) projected across several hanging screens, while a blend of electronic and symphonic music throws audial complexity into the mix as well.

But the issue is not that the end result is cacophonous — in fact, the elements all complement one another quite perfectly. The problem is instead that they complement one another too well, such that it is unclear what is actually driving the performance. At some points, the movements follow the music; at others, the movements seem to dictate the visuals; and ultimately, all give way to one another so as to have no beginning and no end. With no plausible narrative to focus my attention on, I tired very early on from the sensory overload.

It was only in reviewing the program notes after the piece ended that I then came to understand the tapestry that McGregor was trying to weave. I was initially attracted to Atomos after hearing of its novel use of biomechanical data, but was surprised to find none of this data at play during the piece. As it turns out, this was actually incorporated into the creation of the piece, where dancers interacted with an AI dancer generated from an amalgam of sensors they each wore. It is hence no wonder that the piece came across as quite so adrift, as its center of gravity had been extracted from the final product.

The piece was then exactly as McGregor had intended: a commentary on the questions of “What are the atoms that together make humanity present?” What more are we than “the connections that emerge as part of the relations between us?” Atomos’s answer to this is: Not much else. Just as the dancers appear disjointed when you remove the connective tissue of the AI they were created from, you can likewise make no true sense of any individual person without understanding the society from which they derive.