Techno Dance

Choreographer Wayne McGregor connects kids with dance through technology

By Cheryl Ossola

Wayne McGregor is as passionate a man as you’ll hope to find among choreographers. Cerebral and articulate, he is as much an intellectual as an artist. Although making dances is his lifeblood, McGregor desperately wants young people to learn, and he’s using dance in a unique way to make that happen in England’s public schools. With his company, Random Dance, he has established technologically based dance outreach education programs that get young people thinking and lead them to self-discovery. The students learn about dance, but more important in McGregor’s mind, they learn about themselves and how to function in the world.

More than 80 students participated in the workshops that culminated in a performance of Castlescape. (Photo by Pau Ross)

British-born McGregor, a tall, 37-year-old whip of a fellow, founded his modern-dance company in 1992, after obtaining a degree in choreography from England’s University College, Bretton Hall, and training at the Merce Cunningham and José Limón schools. Random Dance has been the resident company at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London since 2001, and last December McGregor was named choreographer in residence at The Royal Ballet (the first non-ballet–trained choreographer to hold that post). Despite holding such high-profile positions, he devotes a huge amount of energy to developing programs that bring dance to hundreds of British schoolchildren.

McGregor prefers to take his programs into schools where kids haven’t had a lot of exposure to dance. His goal is to “explore artistic excellence. The projects might have some social repercussions, but that’s not our focus,” he says. Instead, he says he’s more interested in “developing nonverbal literacy” in young people. To do that, you have to approach kids on their level. “Say some 7-year-olds see a ballet of mine, which is quite difficult and abstract,” McGregor explains. “A teacher might ask them what it means, and the kids have no idea. So they think, ‘I don’t get dance. Dance isn’t for me.’ So when we work with these little kids, we say, ‘What do you see? What color is it? How does it make you feel?’ And all of a sudden meaning emerges, and it’s so liberating for them. And that applies to lots of situations, not just dance—situations in real life. It’s not just for dance; it’s a way of looking at things.”

To make dance appealing to a broad range of personalities means presenting it as more than technique. “The joy you get in the freedom of moving, that physical exhilaration—that’s the hook,” says McGregor. “And once you’ve got [students] hooked, you can invest in the techniques.” He finds that the black sheep of the classroom often yield the most potential. “You want to work with people who are curious and a bit restless and bored. We’ve found that they really engage,” he says. “Even if they don’t engage with the fact that they’re dancing, they like that they’re doing something well and they’re valued for it. And that then helps them to do other things well.”

Technology is a large factor in helping students engage. McGregor utilizes a software program called Poser, which is used to animate bodies for videogames. What interests the choreographer most is that the animated bodies can do things that real ones can’t: Heads can swivel 360 degrees; arms can be dislocated. “We took 10 or 11 computers into the studio and I taught the students the basics of animation,” McGregor says. “They learned about how a time line works, how a key frame of action works over a period of time, and how the transitions between movements work—all choreographic principles. So I was looking from a choreographic eye but teaching through animation.”

But for McGregor the most rewarding result of working with Poser was that the students wanted to try to do what they had made. “As soon as you get them trying those physically impossible things, you’re dealing with choreography. ‘OK, your head can’t go 360 degrees—how could you work with two people to make it look as though it can? OK, your arm doesn’t dislocate that far off your shoulder—how can you work with a group of five people to get that same kind of effect?’ It works so well,” he says. And once he’s gotten the students’ attention, he says, “you can do anything with them. Then you can look at how composition and choreography really work. We’ve invented strategies that approach dance in a different way, because choreography is not just about what the body does; it’s about understanding how you look at things.”

‘Choreography is not just about what the body does; it’s about understanding how you look at things.’ —Wayne McGregor

One of McGregor’s biggest educational ventures is the 10-week Sentient Net project, which reaches 30 schools at a time through live video feeds of McGregor teaching at Sadler’s Wells and is linked to the company’s piece for children, Alpha. (His goal is to put the program into every public school in England.) His dancers go into the schools to work with teachers and students as they follow McGregor through a warm-up and a series of choreographic tasks. Then they work on their own to develop the material they’ve learned into a dance. “Some of the teachers were worried that [working remotely] would make young people less attentive, but actually it was the opposite. They understand what ‘live’ is. And the power of live is very important; it’s not like sticking on a video,” says McGregor. Once the remote teaching is done, company members go into the participating schools, where they put together a dance from the material the students have created. To complete the project, the students perform their dance onstage before a Random Dance performance of Alpha.

The company developed a website (www.randomdance.org/project_alpha) where teachers can see the lesson plans, replay the classes, and get more information. The lessons are tied into the national curriculum so that teachers can use dance to teach concepts in any subject—geography, math, history—you name it. “Teachers don’t normally think about how dance can help math or geography,” says McGregor. “But [dance is] not taking time out from geography; it’s actually advancing their geographic knowledge”—for example, about contours of space, proximity, or distance—“through choreography. It gives teachers a way to be engaged with art.”

According to Random’s co-director of education, Jasmine Wilson, programs like Sentient Net have “a tangible impact on participants and their teachers, whether through offering cross-curricular resources, access to innovative technology, or simply the highest quality artistic experience.” She says that teachers report results like a greater interest in dance and the performing arts, increased self-esteem, and behavioral improvements among their students.

One of the schoolteachers, Caroline Hayward of Lethbridge Primary School, Swindon, Wiltshire, whose students ranged in age from 9 to 11, describes the experience as “inspirational. The high standards and focus were remarkable. It’s one of the rare companies that can technically stretch quite young students and not give a one-size-fits-all workshop. We did have times when my colleagues and I were desperately trying to connect to our live Web access while the dancers were warming up in one corner. There were, predictably, a few light-bulb jokes!”

Thirteen-year-old Evangeline Asio-Okwalinga, who had taken some dance classes outside of school, says that McGregor’s style of movement took her by surprise.

But, she says, “as the weeks passed it became more interesting, and I got more used to it. We used different techniques, developing ideas and using things like changing direction or levels, adding a movement, using dynamics.” She credits those elements with making the students’ dances more “interesting and flowing” and found that using a computer program helped the students develop choreographic ideas. “By the end of the project, my view of contemporary dance had widened,” she says. “I was surprised at the amount of choreography that had been produced from a few ideas.”

McGregor stayed true to his preference for working with untrained youngsters when he choreographed the dances for the Hogwarts holiday ball in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. He asked the producers if he could recruit students from a low-income area of East London for the movie—he wanted the professional actors to be extras and the East London kids to do the dancing. “And they went for it!” McGregor exclaims. “We did a series of workshops and I took the most committed kids, even if they weren’t very good. And it was just wonderful.”

Though producing professional dancers is not his primary goal, some of the kids who have experienced McGregor’s programs have become dancers. One of them, Thomasin Gülgec, worked with the choreographer as a young teenager, then went to the Ballet Rambert school and later joined that company. In what McGregor calls “a fantastic kind of full circle,” Gülgec made his professional debut, taking over a role at the last minute, in a production of McGregor’s Presentient at Rambert. “He’s having such an amazing career now,” says the choreographer. “That [kind of] journey is so inspiring and empowering. If you can catch young people at the right time, and give them a feel for how wonderful dance is and how exceptional it is to be involved in it, they can realize their dreams. That’s why we do this work.”