LONDON — “What if you tried to put your nose on the floor?” Wayne McGregor asked with a smile. Jeffrey Cirio, an American Ballet Theatre principal, complied. He swerved out of an upper-body undulation into a downward plunge, kicking a leg up behind him almost into a split as his face skimmed the floor. “Great, can you rotate that?” McGregor asked, and Cirio levered himself upright, spiraling his torso and falling into a crouch.
On a freezing January day in New York City, he was exuding energy and good cheer as he worked with five American Ballet Theatre dancers on his new “AfteRite,” a version of “The Rite of Spring,” which is to have its premiere at Ballet Theatre’s gala Monday at the Metropolitan Opera House.
But McGregor, who is British and has been the resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet since 2006, was not at that moment creating movement to the famed Stravinsky score. Instead, a low beat and a male voice singing in Arabic filled the downtown Manhattan rehearsal studio, punctuated by the choreographer’s own rhythmic chants and commands.
“Bum bum bay oom,” McGregor sang as Cirio and Herman Cornejo moved through an interlocking chain of movements that seemed slightly too fast for the eye to take in. “Swerve off your rib cage!” he called out. “Sink like you’re in quicksand!”
McGregor’s compositional techniques are unusual. He often creates movement by asking the dancers to attempt ideas — like putting your nose on the floor — and seeing what kind of shapes and movement they create. He generates a large amount of physical material in this way, then culls ideas and sequences, often colliding different passages against one another in duos or larger groups. “It’s hijacking your own work,” he said a few weeks ago, at his elegantly minimal London headquarters in the Olympic Park, on the eastern edge of the city, where he runs his troupe, Company Wayne McGregor.
“It is physically very hard,” said ballerina Alessandra Ferri, who has worked with McGregor at the Royal Ballet and is performing in “AfteRite.” “There is a quantity of movement that you have to memorize with your mind and your body: Memorize, next; memorize, next. But the speed, the departure from what you know, breaks patterns, your body and mind habits, and that frees creativity and brings something new out of you.”
McGregor said his new work for Ballet Theatre would not follow the narrative suggested by the Stravinsky score, whose sections have titles like “Glorification of the Chosen One.” “When you are dealing with a work like ‘Rite,’ it’s a palimpsest,” he said. “When I think about all the versions I’ve seen, and everything I’ve read about the Nijinsky-Stravinsky 1913 creation, I realize there is a thick strata there in my consciousness.”
That, he said, was why he had named the piece “AfteRite.” “It acknowledges the ‘Rites’ I’ve seen, but also alludes to a sort of retinal burn of recurrent themes and ideas, and to a speculative future.”
The sense of a futuristic setting will be partly evoked through film of the Atacama Desert in Chile, the driest and possibly the oldest desert on earth. (The film was made by his frequent collaborator, Ravi Deepres; McGregor is also using his other frequent collaborators, Lucy Carter, for lighting, and Vicki Mortimer for the scenery and costumes.) “It’s an alien landscape,” McGregor said, “and even in the original ‘Rite,’ there is a sense of otherness, a place we recognize and don’t.”
McGregor’s choreographic career, which began in the early 1990s, has been characterized almost from the start by an intense interest in new technologies, digital animation, human and artificial intelligence, and the way all of these can affect the human body. He has put performers in changing digital landscapes, given them prosthetic limbs, explored the effects of neurological disorder and recently created a work based on genome sequencing.
Everything, to McGregor, is information that can drive movement. When he began to choreograph more frequently for ballet companies in the mid-2000s he treated ballet technique itself as a kind of technology — a source of fascinating information about the way specifically trained bodies can function under varying conditions. (Pointe work, after all, offers a prosthetic foot of sorts.)
“When I first saw his work, maybe a decade ago, I thought, This is the next thing,” said Kevin McKenzie, artistic director of Ballet Theatre. “Here was a rule breaker, like Twyla Tharp or William Forsythe, and a jump into another level.”
In Europe, McGregor is regarded as a major dance voice and has received generally admiring reviews, but his work is performed far less frequently in the United States, and critics have often been dismissive.
McKenzie, though, said he had wanted to acquire a McGregor piece for a while. “I was thinking about reviving the Glen Tetley ‘Rite of Spring,’ and I thought, this is what Wayne should do.”
He said he was unaware at that time that McGregor had been scheduled to create a “Rite of Spring” for the Bolshoi Ballet, a project that fell through after its director, Sergei Fillin, was attacked with acid in January 2013. McGregor said that contrary to reports, he hadn’t withdrawn out of a fear of personal danger, but because the complex set he needed to rehearse with had not been built. “There was a lot of flux after the acid attack on Sergei, and it just didn’t seem like they could support a new piece right then,” he said.
The Ballet Theatre work, he said, is different in concept and design from the one he had conceived for the Bolshoi. “I think you always make a work for the place you are going to — or at least, I do,” he said. “I wanted to try something different.”
McGregor has kept the cast small, with 15 dancers, two of whom are children. “I wanted to build a community onstage, different ages, races, bodies.” He added that there was a mother figure, and “some kind of narrative thread, a sense of ritual and transformation.” Is it about a woman dancing herself to death? he asked rhetorically. “I’m not sure that’s where I want to go.”
Ferri said the work was “a real departure from the rhythmical atmosphere and group dances that we’re accustomed to seeing in ‘Rite of Spring.’ I think he has taken it away from the past, and asks, what is it now, what does it do to people to sacrifice a human life?”
Asked if he felt the weight of dance history in creating a “Rite of Spring,” McGregor said: “The more I think about it, the more anxious I feel. I have to keep going back and thinking, What does this mean to me?” He contemplated that question. “There is something about the cyclical nature of this work that makes us look at humanity from a distance. You can’t help but question your own snapshot of existence.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.