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February 6, 2012

Human Beauty: Wayne McGregor’s Movement Research

By Petra Kuppers

Photo: from AtaXia.

There is a long tradition of work fascinated by difference: last month’s Einstein on the Beach, is based on the writings of Christopher Knowles, an autistic poet, and collaborator of Robert Wilson. In AtaXia, a sci-art dance he created in 2004 by Wayne McGregor, disability and bodily difference emerge as formal movement principles, and create a new attention to different ways of being in space.

McGregor choreographed AtaXia after an eight-month research fellowship at the experimental psychology department at Cambridge. Merging scientific research and movement research, he based the dance on the disorder named by its title. McGregor, a group of neuroscientists, Sarah Seddon Jenner who has an ataxic movement disorder, and Random Dance’s troupe of well-trained, professional dancers all worked together to choreograph a dance based on a medical condition which disrupts movement, and overloads nerves.

And it is not just the bodies that play with disruption, starts, stops, overload: AtaXia’s stage has a mirroring backdrop, multiplying the movements and bodies on stage. The bodies flash in costumes shot through with fiber-optics, lighting up movements and speed. In the patterns of the dance, an arm’s arc gets arrested, thrashes, hacks at the air.

Curiosity and both scientific and artistic research shaped the creation of the piece. Jenner describes her interaction with the company:

I came back for a 135 minute question and answer session with the company, during which we covered many of the things they had learned in the research context, as well as working through some of their own observations about movement, dysfunction, and how bodies cope with impairment.

The whole piece really started to make sense to me, though, after a rehearsal I did with the company during which one of the dancers (Leila Dalio) and I worked through some choreographic exercises.

The whole company, including Wayne, was in the room, but they all appeared to be working intently on their own material. I was concentrating on lasting three hours without a) forgetting my movements; b) injuring Leila by leaning on her too much; and c) falling over. So, I didn’t realize until I saw the finished dance how carefully I’d been observed.

Some examples of ways I move that made it into the finished piece. I scoot on my backside along the floor rather than stand to move from one place to another. I touch people and things not so much to bear weight as to help orient myself relative to them. As I get tired, I lean on others for support and more often than not, I get that support.

In her discussion with me, Jenner mentions that her contact with the dancers taught her important information as she continues to adjust to living with ataxia: the information reflected back to her by the trained bodies of dancers, well-used to picking up unusual movement information and structuring it. Through these translatory processes, Jenner’s embodiment echoes back to her across the image of the dancers on stage – a new image of her own movement quality emerges for her.

Jenner shared with me her emotions about experiencing her movement mirrored back to her. Mainstream aesthetics see disability so often only as a tragedy, as something to be overcome (and this attitude is easily internalized). In this collaborative research process, her condition became the source of exciting movement patterns, of intriguing human difference.

PK: What did YOU learn about your own movement by watching the dancers in the performance? Did anything surprise you? What and why?

SSJ: There are specific gestures in AtaXia that are typical of those with neurological impairments that I despise catching myself make, and I surprised myself with how negative and judgmental I feel about them. (Specifically, jerky arm gestures and the tendency to hold the arm close to the body, fully flexed at wrist and elbow). One dancer explained that the shame and hostility I associate with those movements are learned social responses and that they are not intrinsic to the movement. It was all I could do not to snap back, “I hate them anyway.” I find that now that I’ve seen them performed, the sting has gone out of those gestures and I don’t even mind seeing them in the mirror.

Some critics call Wayne McGregor’s choreographies distant, or cool. As I give myself to his intricate spectacles, I remember the empowering effects of movement research on Jenner, and enjoy the play with the movement differences our world has to offer.

Editor’s Note: Wayne McGregor and Random Dance come to Ann Arbor to perform Far on February 19, 2012.


Petra Kuppers is a disability culture activist, a community artist, and an Associate Professor of English, Theatre and Dance, and Women's Studies.