Wayne McGregor’s EDEN | EDEN: Know Before You Go
British choreographer Wayne McGregor CBE joined us in the studios this week to oversee the final rehearsals for EDEN|EDEN, his futuristic ballet that will join James Kudelka's The Four Seasons in Atlanta Ballet's season opener. His work focuses on genetic engineering and the posits questions about the ethics of cloning. Learn more about the ballet before you go; check out the program notes below. Tickets are still available. Click here to purchase.
Program Notes From San Francisco Ballet World Premiere; March 13, 2007; War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, CA By Cheryl A. Ossola
If Eden/Eden sparks debate among audiences, that’s only fitting. In this bold, unconventional ballet, created for Stuttgart Ballet in 2005, choreographer Wayne McGregor places the role of technology at the heart of an evolutionary and cautionary tale about the ethics surrounding the human body. Though he raises questions about the future of humanity as we face potentially devastating misuses of technology, he makes no attempt to provide answers. What he wants is discourse.
McGregor, a tall, lanky, philosophical young man, has been creating dances for nearly half his life. In 1992, armed with a degree in choreography from England’s University College, Bretton Hall, and training from some of the pinnacles of American modern dance, the intrepid 22-year-old started his own company, Random Dance (now Wayne McGregor | Random Dance). Though not trained in ballet, he has choreographed for such companies as Ballet Rambert, La Scala Ballet, Stuttgart Ballet, and The Royal Ballet, where he has been resident choreographer since 2006. He’s made dozens of dances for his company as well as for the Discovery Channel, BBC, Arte, TV commercials, theater productions, operas, youth dance companies, educational outreach programs, and feature films, including Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
Technology was at the forefront of many of McGregor’s early works, but what intrigues the choreographer most of late is the human body and its potential. “The body is a phenomenal piece of equipment. I think we underestimate it,” he said in 2007, during rehearsals with San Francisco Ballet (only the second company to perform it). In talking about Eden/Eden, McGregor posed unanswerable questions, the kind he thinks should be investigated before ethical decisions are made: “What does it mean when you clone yourself? If I cloned myself, what are the differences in us? What is it that makes you a human being? Is it biology? Is it skin and bones, muscle? Or is it something much more spiritual, something that makes you different even if someone has the same gene pool as you?” His existential ponderings led him to set his ballet in the traditional concept of the origins of man, Eden. The repetition in the title, he said, came from the idea that “there could be two Edens, many Edens. This idea of multiplicity exists in all of the piece, so I thought it should exist in the title.” In effect, McGregor took the name “Eden” and cloned it to make the title for his ballet. Eden/Eden is set to Steve Reich’s spoken libretto/musical score for the third act of a 2002 filmic opera, Three Tales, devised by Reich and his filmmaker wife, Beryl Korot. “Dolly” (named for the cloned sheep) pits scientists against one another in a thoughtful debate about the ethics of cloning. McGregor had been thinking about exploring the theme of evolution, and he was so struck by the opera’s powerful message that he begged Reich to let him use it. (Reich had not envisioned a life for his work outside of the opera, but McGregor’s plea was so passionate that the composer acquiesced.) “I was convinced that something could be added to that experience of music, in a different context, and it could be quite eloquent,” said the choreographer. “Perhaps dance would contribute something to the debate. It could be quite powerful, but in a completely different way, not in a literal way.” The arguments and opinions posed in the work’s voice-overs are complex and thought provoking, and it’s easy for audiences to miss some of their content while focusing on the visual images before them. That’s fine with McGregor. “There’s something about the liveness of the voice that bears fruit upon the liveness of the body. But as far as understanding [the spoken content] literally, absolutely not. I want the audience to do a bit of work in creating meaning while they’re watching,” he said. The ballet opens with a single woman onstage; in McGregor’s Eden—and in a twist on Genesis—woman preceded man. She dances alone before a bare-limbed tree. Soon a man joins her, emerging from the earth—an apparent reference to his humanity—then a couple, then another. All are bald and costumed as if nude, essentially stripping them of their individuality and minimizing their gender. For the women, especially, this shift in focus away from their femininity emphasizes the body itself. “Seeing a woman with no hair is a very unusual aesthetic, and you see the body in a different way,” McGregor said. “I think what you see is its power and strength rather than its femininity. Often people say they see the woman as peaceful and the man as strong—very stereotyped—and I wanted to find a way of expressing bodies, or the potential of bodies, in a different way.”
Later in the piece, when the dancers let their hair free and don some clothing, they become more individual, and thus more human. It’s a fascinating transition. Musical and textual themes give the ballet its structure and propel the woman along on a journey of discovery. What McGregor found interesting about the score was that “the text is supported by particular rhythmic or musical environments. What Steve tried to do, it seems to me, is marry a particular kind of world with a particular kind of text. So already there’s kind of a collaboration between text and music that informs how you address the body.” He extrapolated some of the key messages of the score and made movement that expressed or supported those ideas. “The text inspires the making of the vocabulary, and that vocabulary exists in its own terms,” he said. In creating the ballet’s vocabulary, McGregor said he wanted the body to be the most extraordinary technological thing in sight, and his steps do seem to test the limits of human ability. Yet former SF Ballet principal dancer Muriel Maffre, who danced the role of the journeying woman in the San Francisco premiere, perceived the movement’s quality as more primitive than high-tech. “We went so far into technology that it went back into being raw and primordial, with that edge to it,” she said. “It touches me as being very brave.” The choreographer, who has had considerably more experience creating work than setting it on other companies, found the process of working with the San Francisco Ballet dancers revealing. “They’re teaching me something about the work I didn’t know,” he said. “All of a sudden I’m seeing these things, because the interpretation is different, with fresh eyes.
Some of the dancers’ interpretations give me more emotional value than some of the dancers at Stuttgart. It’s a completely different thing.” The cerebral approach McGregor takes to his subject matter was equally evident in the way he worked with the SF Ballet dancers. He told them exactly what he’d be watching for with each run-through. One time it was interpersonal relationships; another time he said he was looking for the dysfunctional in the body. “The sense of dysfunction takes a while to figure out,” said Maffre. “It’s very disorienting—we work all our lives to achieve harmonious movement. It was hard for me to achieve that with a sense of freedom.” What came more easily, she said, was what McGregor described as “interpolation rather than end points,” which to Maffre translated to “the journey from one movement to the other. It’s like coming home for me—I’ve always been interested in focusing on that.” McGregor is as articulate in expressing his ideas through dance as he is in words. With Eden/Eden he has taken the concept of the cycle of life and placed it in a man-versus-machine context. “I hope that the audience will go on a journey with [the central woman], that at the end you remember where she started and [realize] the extremity of her journey. You’ve gone through quite an aggressive series of images that’s unrelenting,” he said. “Technology is unrelenting in that way.” Still, the choreographer seems to suggest that in a face-off between mortals and machines, the odds are on us fallible humans. As chilling as some of the ballet’s images are, and as sobering its ruminations on our world’s uncertain future, McGregor appears to hold out hope that ultimately we will make choices that will guarantee the survival of the human race. As Maffre said, “any time you enhance awareness, it’s always with hope.”