An Interview with Wayne McGregor

By Toba Singer


International choreographer, Wayne McGregor, whose work Chroma has been met with international acclaim. Accolades include his work as movement director for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and choreographer of the most recent Radiohead video, “Lotus Flower.” This season, he is creating new work for the New York City, Stuttgart and Bolshoi Ballets.

McGregor was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2011 New Year Honours for services to dance. He has set work for La Scala Opera House, Australian Ballet and his own company, Random Dance. Wayne McGregor’s Chroma will be performed as part of San Francisco Ballet’s current season, Program 6 April 7-20, at the War Memorial Opera House, SF.

Toba Singer: If we can agree that a choreographic work is metaphorically an offspring, who is Chroma in relationship to your family of works?

Wayne McGregor: I agree with you, I always feel that a dance work is part of a continuum, and continues to grow over time. Since Chroma was made in 2006, that dialogue has been an active one. I had the very best time working on it because I worked from a position of knowing the dancers quite well, and felt that all the signals were optimum that I could pull out signatures of dancers I knew and work with language both of us knew and could interpret. It was the first time I was able to work rigorously in that kind of way.

Faced with a dancer for the first time, the process is very much about discovering what’s inherent in them and what you bring to the table; so you can discover a lot about yourself. When you have a whole group, maybe 55 or 60 dancers, so much discovery can be overwhelming. You confront the question of how much can you develop it? You always want to respect the physical signatures as much as possible, find unique attributes and combine them. When you have dancers you know well, you can push and take them further. The audiences have seen something so evident about them in other pieces. Your hope is to uncover, probe, and solve problems in a different way with them than has been done before. That is why it is so important to have an ongoing relationship with a company, so that you aren’t doing choreography on the dancers, but with them. That’s what keeps you alert and the work alive.

TS: Please describe a collaboration that you feel has worked well for you, the piece you were working on at the time, and what happened in that process that made it successful.

WM: I don’t judge the success of a collaboration based on reviews. For me, the success is found in the process of exploring ideas. When you engage in such explorations, it can be quite successful in terms of learning. Important to me are the choices one makes in who you are collaborating with. Do you have shared questions? How much will the collaboration force you to move your position, and not do the thing you always do? While I don’t think collaboration is another word for compromise, you do have to be willing to move your position to find out about the thing you’re asking. I’d like to think that I like working with someone in a situation where there’s no tension, but in reconsidering, I think that there has to be tension; otherwise how can you learn? Each of you has to come from a strong point of view. That’s a big part of the journey, discovering the idea and finding the interrogation that challenges both of you. Collaboration is not about compromise, but finding something through your work together.

TS: Not many ballet choreographers these days get to work in the feature film medium. What surprises were there in the Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire experience?

WM: I’ve worked a lot in London’s West End, with Broadway shows, dance films, and so working with people other than on the ballet stage is natural for me. The rhythm is very different. I worked on Harry Potter for eight months, every day, from early morning to late at night. It’s so different than making a piece for a company, you must work quickly and get everything done in a short time, even though there is a lot of waiting around and down time. It is a different type of process in which structure is unimportant. In the moment is what counts. You are working with snapshots rather than dance through time. Film actors are time-poor; you haven’t got hours and hours, so you must be direct in your communication and do something quickly that looks good. I find that it’s very important to talk directly to the director. It’s often the case that one could talk to seven other people who then bring an idea to the director–you don’t want that. I make four or five versions of it and let them choose. There has to be a continuity of commitment where each side has to have the clarity and honesty to say no if they don’t like it. Another difference is that you are not the final arbiter of the work, and their vision has to come through. It’s actually great fun to be given a task and solve another artist’s problem!

TS: If for a year, you were given carte blanche by a funding source, and could do any work you wanted to with any company or group of individual dancers, how would you utilize that year? What would you do?

WM: I’m lucky because I get to do exactly that most years, unlimited. I get funding from the Art Fund of the UK, strong fiscal support, and the same is true in the ballet world outside of London. I won’t go to a company unless I can do what I want. Mentoring is what I’m keen on. I like working with groups of dancers early on. It’s very important to find dancers you didn’t expect; it raises your game, it forces you to work on something interesting and challenging. I would love to give young choreographers the chance to work with dancers from the elite companies. It is the most energizing experience. The notion that you must get to a certain point as a dancer before you can do this makes it unnecessarily difficult. The earlier, the sooner, the better for the young choreographer!

TS: Does the rigidity of companies’ existing schedules pose a problem for you?

WM: It depends on the company. Usually, I get to have my 60 dancers all the time at Paris Opera. The Royal is trickier because they have so much going on. I like it though, because it challenges me to find a different way of organizing work time. The dancers love it because they too find it challenging to do Giselle, Wheeldon, McGregor in parallel. One informs the other, and that’s really the best way to work.

TS: Can you imagine just leaving the Western ballet world for a year or so and taking on an entirely different sort of project

WM: If I were tempted I would probably go outside of dance, and study architecture or philosophy, not because dance doesn’t have its riches, but because other disciplines and bodies of knowledge inform one’s work. I’ve always thought it would be great to bring in philosophers and writers to speak to the dancers, as a way of plugging them into a more direct connection with the real world.

For more information on San Francisco Ballet’s Program 6 see the calendar on page 6, or visit

Toba Singer is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer who contributes to Dance Europe and Dance Magazine. She is the author of First Position: A Century of Ballet Artists (Praeger 2007) and is working on the forthcoming book Fernando Alonso: the Art and Science of Ballet (University Press of Florida 2011).

This article appeared in the April 2011 issue of In Dance.

Toba Singer is former Senior Program Director of the Art and Music Center of the San Francisco Public Library. With a BA in History from the University of Massachusetts and a Masters in Library Science, she spent 30 years engaged in the struggles of working people as a steelworker, refinery worker, garment and airline worker. Her son James Gotesky dances with Houston Ballet. She is the author of First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists (Praeger 2007), and her book Fernando Alonso: the Art and Science of Ballet (University Press of Florida) will come out in September, 2011.