Dance Review: The wonderful wizards of Oz Nashville inaugurate their new space with the far-reaching choreography of Wayne McGregor

far1Nashville is not exactly a mecca of modern dance. But you wouldn’t have guessed that on Thursday night, when the unapologetically modern Random Dance made its debut at Oz Nashville.

The London-based company, which performs the works of its brilliantly adventurous founder and choreographer, Wayne McGregor, was in town for the official opening of the city’s newest performance venue. For the event, Nashville’s arts enthusiasts were out in force, filling Oz Nashville to capacity, greeting McGregor and his dancers as if they were the members of U2.

far3That was hardly surprising, since in the world of contemporary dance, McGregor and his company enjoy a certain rock-star status. The 44-year-old McGregor is known for creating kinetic, frenetic works of choreographed complexity that often derive from his fascination with science and technology. He frequently sets these pieces to pulsating, pounding contemporary scores. The fast-paced action, the volume and the physical aggressiveness of the works seem a perfect reflection of modern-day life – hence, McGregor’s broad contemporary appeal.

Science, technology and reason were at the heart of the work that Random Dance presented on Thursday night. The piece was called FAR, an acronym for Flesh in the Age of Reason, named for medical historian Roy Porter’s book about the changing perceptions of body and soul that occurred during the Enlightenment. Among other things, 18th-century medical examiners noted during autopsies that men and women had the same number of ribs, a scientific finding that suggested that there was perhaps a bit more poetry in the Book of Genesis than one had initially thought.

McGregor used Porter’s book as the starting point for his own rational exploration of the body. To suggest enlightenment, the staging of FAR included a computerized pin board of about 3,500 LED lights that hung above the stage. These “Lite Brite” like pegs were positioned at angles, creating textures and shadows that sometimes resembled water droplets. Near the end of the program, the lights began flashing numbers, slowly at first, then quickly, like randomized algorithms on a digital screen.

Incorporating high-tech lights into modern dance often produces gimmicky results. In FAR, the pin board always seemed to work in tandem with the dancers, as if it were the eleventh member of McGregor’s 10-dancer troupe.  The dancers, for their parts, reacted to the board as if it were a kind of sanctuary, emerging from and then disappearing into its shadows.

far2The spongy muscles and tendons that the 18th-century medical examiners saw seemingly inspired McGregor to create choreography of remarkable elasticity. Spiky, angular movements are a signature feature of modern dance. There were sharp points in many of the dancers’ movements on Thursday, but I was struck by the rounded, Gumby-like flexibility of McGregor’s dancers. They were able to move, seemingly weightlessly, in all manner of elongated shapes, some of which called to mind animals such as giraffes, ostriches and even crabs.

I was also struck by the dancers’ stamina. For the better part of a hour, these terrific artist-athletes were in a state of nonstop movement, running laps, striking poses and executing leaps of diabolical difficulty. Talk about an aerobic workout. At the end of the program, these dancers seemed more rejuvenated than winded. Not me. I was exhausted.

But my fatigue was mostly of the mental variety. McGregor noted during a post-performance chat that the human brain, by nature, filters complex information, arranging it in ways that are easy to comprehend. The brain, above all, seizes on repetition, a commodity that seemed to be in short supply in FAR. With the exception of one literal moment near the end of the piece, when the dancers seem to engage in a stylized brawl, McGregor’s choreography is mostly abstract and ever changing, offering few repeated motifs to facilitate understanding. For that reason, McGregor suggested during his Q&A that it was best to watch one of his works multiple times. No kidding.

FAR was performed to a recording of original music by Australian composer Ben Frost, who, according to McGregor, has been described as a kind of “musical terrorist.” I think of him more as a delightfully unrepentant modernist whose music is a kind of industrial-strength white noise, music that is beautifully ambiguous in its ability to sound both primal and futuristic at the same time. For sure, it perfectly matched the kinetic movements of McGregor’s choreography.

In all, this was an extraordinary evening of smart art in Nashville. The wonderful wizards of Oz Nashville – founder Cano Ozgener, chief executive officer Tim Ozgener and artistic director Lauren Snelling – deserve high praise for bringing this kind of, ahem, far-reaching art to our town. It bodes well for the artistic future.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), ArtNowNashville.com and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.