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What makes movement moving?

The choreographer Alexander Whitley takes his next steps in dance – and cognitive science

Julie Kavanagh | May/June 2014

“You can’t talk a good ballet,” Balanchine used to say, warning against overloading dance with ideas. Frederick Ashton’s masterpiece “Symphonic Variations” draws its beatific power from the doctrine of the Carmelite mystics, but it was a libretto he kept secret, even from his dancers. These days, choreographers are keener to disseminate their thinking, revealing a quadrivium of influences from numerology to neuroscience. If the laureate of high-brow ballet is Wayne McGregor, Alexander Whitley may well be his heir. He takes the titles for two new works, “All that is Solid Melts into Air” and “The Measures Taken”, from Marx and Brecht, and both are driven by a fascination with phenomenology and “what’s moving about movement”.

Whitley, who is 33, trained at the Royal Ballet before joining its Birmingham company, but found himself becoming more and more interested in the contemporary scene, joining Rambert and then McGregor’s Random Dance. “Wayne has mentored me for the last five years,” he says, “and opened my eyes to what dance is capable of. I hope I can take everything I learnt from him and use it in a way that defines my own work.” McGregor’s experiments with cognitive science and technology have filtered into “The Measures Taken”, a 40-minute piece which uses tracking devices from the digital artists Marshmallow Laser Feast to investigate the difference between a computer’s response to movement and that of the human eye. A taster on Whitley’s website shows his company of five negotiating a cat’s cradle of lines, a white doodle following a male soloist like an inquisitive ghost, and lights mutating from a single undulating wave to jagged lines and starry pinpricks.

There were no projected images in the rehearsal I watched, but I was immediately struck by the inventiveness of Whitley’s dance idiom. Some passages are improvised, whereas others—such as a weirdly compelling solo in which a girl confined to the floor squirms and folds like a foetus—are the result of set tasks. The telepathy between the quintet is tangible and electrifying. Whitley’s examination of “kinesthetic empathy” and “qualitative dynamics” may not resonate with anyone apart from himself, but if his dance has the impact I witnessed in the studio, his success is guaranteed. ~ Julie Kavanagh

The Measures Taken Linbury Studio, ROH, London, May 15th-16th

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