Science Behind the Dance – Autobiography by Wayne McGregor

Auto-Bio-Graphy = Self-Life-Writing or how your body and life look as told through choreography.  This is what Wayne McGregor imagined as he began working on Autobiography with the McGregor Company Dancers.  The Science Writing and Communication club (SWAC) and Carolina Performing Arts recently sat down with the dancers to discuss how science and dance intersect.

SWAC learned that McGregor has been collaborating with scientists for many years regarding different facets of dance.  For example, his dancers have worked with Professor David Kirsh at the University of California, San Diego, where he studied creative cognition with the dancers and how dance content is created and remembered between dancers and choreographer.

Photo by Andrej Uspenski

Company Wayne McGregor dancers perform Autobiography. Photo by Andrej Uspenski.

When McGregor began working on Autobiography, inspired by having his DNA sequenced, he gave his dancers ideas, or what they call tasks, to demonstrate different concepts with their bodies through dance.  For example, at the beginning of creating Autobiography, the dancers were paired into groups of 4 and given the letters A,T,G, or C.  He then asked them to create choreography together.  Then McGregor and the dancers visited The Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge UK, a world leader in genome research, and learned what the letters A,T,G,C meant biologically as the building blocks of DNA. After visiting the sequencing facility, McGregor asked the dancers to repeat their choreography tasks.  During our conversation, the dancers said that with their new understanding of DNA biology, the choreography tasks took on a new meaning.

The dance Autobiography is broken down into 23 different choreographed segments that are assigned an order randomly by an algorithm to mimic the randomness of DNA recombination.  This aspect of the choreography is complicated for the dancers, who don’t know the order of the segments until a couple days before the performance.  This meant that sometimes they would be dancing for long periods of time, whereas other times their performances would be broken up into smaller segments throughout the night.  Sometimes the dance segments flow into the next piece of choreography seamlessly, and sometimes they end quite abruptly.  In our conversation, the dancers said they envisioned this re-ordering and occasional abrupt stopping as being very similar to the chaos of life.

An interesting moment from our conversation evolved as both dancers and scientists alike realized that we both strive to achieve communication through our bodies.  It is easy to imagine how dancers do this, but not as easy to imagine how scientists communicate with body movement.  As scientists, we realized that we attempt to communicate concepts visually through use of our bodies, whether it be through gesturing with our hands to emphasize points during a presentation, or through mimicking with our bodies what we believe is happening, invisible to us, inside a cell during DNA damage, repair, or replication.  Another moment in our conversation where science connected easily to dance was when the scientists and dancers discussed how both published scientific findings and performed choreography are both put into the ether for others to interpret using their personal lenses.  We all interpret data differently based on our own experiences, and as scientists and as dancers we hope that people find use in our work and can apply it to their own lives.

Peer edited by Adrienne Cox.

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