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TEDGlobal 2012

Wayne McGregor: A choreographer's creative process in real time

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We all use our body on a daily basis, and yet few of us think about our physicality the way Wayne McGregor does. He demonstrates how a choreographer communicates ideas to an audience, working with two dancers to build phrases of dance, live and unscripted, on the TEDGlobal stage.

- Dancer and Choreographer
Wayne McGregor and his dancers explore the uncharted territory where mind and movement intersect. Full bio

As you might imagine, I'm absolutely passionate
00:16
about dance. I'm passionate about making it,
00:17
about watching it, about encouraging others
00:20
to participate in it,
00:22
and I'm also really passionate about creativity.
00:24
Creativity for me is something that's absolutely critical,
00:27
and I think it's something that you can teach.
00:31
I think the technicities of creativity can be taught
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and shared, and I think you can find out things
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about your own personal physical signature,
00:38
your own cognitive habits, and use that as
00:40
a point of departure to misbehave beautifully.
00:42
I was born in the 1970s, and John Travolta was big
00:45
in those days: "Grease," "Saturday Night Fever,"
00:50
and he provided a fantastic kind of male role model for me
00:52
to start dancing. My parents were very up for me going.
00:55
They absolutely encouraged me to take risks, to go,
00:58
to try, to try. I had an opportunity, an access
01:00
to a local dance studio, and I had an enlightened teacher
01:05
who allowed me to make up my own and invent
01:08
my own dances, so what she did was let me make up
01:11
my own ballroom and Latin American dances to teach
01:14
to my peers.
01:17
And that was the very first time that I found an opportunity
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to feel that I was able to express my own voice,
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and that's what's fueled me, then, to become a choreographer.
01:24
I feel like I've got something to say and something to share.
01:27
And I guess what's interesting is, is that I am now obsessed
01:30
with the technology of the body.
01:34
I think it's the most technologically literate thing that we have,
01:35
and I'm absolutely obsessed with finding a way
01:39
of communicating ideas through the body to audiences
01:42
that might move them, touch them,
01:45
help them think differently about things.
01:47
So for me, choreography is very much a process
01:50
of physical thinking. It's very much in mind,
01:53
as well as in body, and it's a collaborative process.
01:56
It's something that I have to do with other people.
02:00
You know, it's a distributed cognitive process in a way.
02:01
I work often with designers and visual artists,
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obviously dancers and other choreographers,
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but also, more and more, with economists,
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anthropologists, neuroscientists, cognitive scientists,
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people really who come from very different domains of
02:18
expertise, where they bring their intelligence to bear
02:21
on a different kind of creative process.
02:24
What I thought we would do today a little bit is
02:26
explore this idea of physical thinking,
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and we're all experts in physical thinking.
02:32
Yeah, you all have a body, right?
02:33
And we all know what that body is like in the real world,
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so one of the aspects of physical thinking
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that we think about a lot is this notion of proprioception,
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the sense of my own body in the space in the real world.
02:42
So, we all understand what it feels like to know
02:45
where the ends of your fingers are
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when you hold out your arms, yeah?
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You absolutely know that when you're going to grab a cup,
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or that cup moves and you have to renavigate it.
02:54
So we're experts in physical thinking already.
02:56
We just don't think about our bodies very much.
02:58
We only think about them when they go wrong, so, when
03:00
there's a broken arm, or when you have a heart attack,
03:03
then you become really very aware of your bodies.
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But how is it that we can start to think about using
03:08
choreographic thinking, kinesthetic intelligence, to arm
03:10
the ways in which we think about things more generally?
03:14
What I thought I'd do is, I'd make a TED premiere.
03:16
I'm not sure if this is going to be good or not.
03:19
I'll just be doing it.
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I thought what I'd do is, I'd use three versions
03:23
of physical thinking to make something.
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I want to introduce you. This is Paolo. This is Catarina.
03:27
(Applause)
03:30
They have no idea what we're going to do.
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So this is not the type of choreography where
03:36
I already have in mind what I'm going to make,
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where I've fixed the routine in my head
03:40
and I'm just going to teach it to them,
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and these so-called empty vessels are just going to learn it.
03:44
That's not the methodology at all that we work with.
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But what's important about it is how it is that they're
03:50
grasping information, how they're taking information,
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how they're using it, and how they're thinking with it.
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I'm going to start really, really simply.
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Usually, dance has a stimulus or stimuli, and I thought
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I'd take something simple, TED logo, we can all see it,
04:03
it's quite easy to work with, and I'm going to do something
04:06
very simply, where you take one idea from a body,
04:08
and it happens to be my body, and translate that
04:11
into somebody else's body,
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so it's a direct transfer, transformation of energy.
04:15
And I'm going to imagine this, you can do this too if you like,
04:18
that I'm going to just take the letter "T" and I'm going
04:21
to imagine it in mind, and I'm going to place that outside in
04:23
the real world. So I absolutely see a letter "T" in front of me.
04:26
Yeah? It's absolutely there.
04:30
I can absolutely walk around it when I see it, yeah?
04:32
It has a kind of a grammar. I know what I'm going to do
04:34
with it, and I can start to describe it, so I can describe it
04:36
very simply. I can describe it in my arms, right?
04:39
So all I did was take my hand and then I move my hand.
04:42
I can describe it, whoa, in my head, you know? Whoa.
04:45
Okay. I can do also my shoulder. Yeah?
04:47
It gives me something to do, something to work towards.
04:49
If I were to take that letter "T" and flatten it down
04:53
on the floor, here, maybe just off the floor,
04:55
all of a sudden I could do maybe something with my knee,
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yeah? Whoa. So If I put the knee and the arms together,
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I've got something physical, yeah? And I can start to build something.
05:02
So what I'm going to do just for one and a half minutes or so
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is I'm going to take that concept, I'm going to make something,
05:08
and the dancers behind me are going to interpret it,
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they're going to snapshot it, they're going to take
05:13
aspects of it, and it's almost like I'm offloading memory
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and they're holding onto memory? Yeah?
05:18
And we'll see what we come up with.
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So just have a little watch about how they're, how they're
05:21
accessing this and what they're doing,
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and I'm just going to take this letter "T," the letter "E,"
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and the letter "D," to make something. Okay. Here goes.
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So I have to get myself in the zone. Right.
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It's a bit of a cross of my arm.
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So all I'm doing is exploring this space of "T"
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and flashing through it with some action.
06:00
I'm not remembering what I'm doing.
06:06
I'm just working on my task. My task is this "T."
06:08
Going to watch it from the side, whoa.
06:11
Strike moment.
06:16
That's it.
06:18
So we're starting to build a phrase.
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So what they're doing, let's see, something like that,
06:28
so what they're doing is grasping aspects of that movement
06:29
and they're generating it into a phrase.
06:33
You can see the speed is extremely quick, yeah?
06:35
I'm not asking them to copy exactly.
06:37
They're using the information that they receive
06:39
to generate the beginnings of a phrase.
06:41
I can watch that and that can tell me something
06:45
about how it is that they're moving.
06:47
Yeah, they're super quick, right?
06:49
So I've taken this aspect of TED and translated it
06:53
into something that's physical.
06:56
Some dancers, when they're watching action,
07:01
take the overall shape, the arc of the movement,
07:04
the kinetic sense of the movement,
07:06
and use that for memory.
07:08
Some work very much in specific detail.
07:10
They start with small little units and build it up.
07:12
Okay, you've got something? One more thing.
07:16
So they're solving this problem for me,
07:33
having a little --
07:37
They're constructing that phrase.
07:40
They have something and they're going to hold on to it,
07:42
yeah? One way of making.
07:44
That's going to be my beginning in this world premiere.
07:46
Okay. From there I'm going to do a very different thing.
07:48
So basically I'm going to make a duet.
07:50
I want you to think about them as architectural objects,
07:53
so what they are, are just pure lines.
07:56
They're no longer people, just pure lines, and I'm going
07:59
to work with them almost as objects to think with, yeah?
08:01
So what I'm thinking about is taking
08:05
a few physical extensions from the body as I move, and
08:08
I move them, and I do that by suggesting things to them:
08:12
If, then; if, then. Okay, so here we go.
08:14
Just grab this arm.
08:17
Can you place that down into the floor?
08:18
Yeah, down to the floor. Can you go underneath?
08:21
Yeah. Cat, can you put leg over that side? Yeah.
08:24
Can you rotate?
08:27
Whoom, just go back to the beginning.
08:29
Here we go, ready? And ... bam, bake ... (clicks metronome)
08:30
Great. Okay, from there, you're both getting up.
08:36
You're both getting up. Here we go. Good, now? Them.
08:38
(Applause)
08:42
So from there, from there, we're both getting up,
08:43
we're both getting up, going in this direction,
08:46
going underneath. Whoa, whoa, underneath.
08:47
Whoa, underneath, whoo-um. Yeah? Underneath. Jump.
08:50
Underneath. Jump. Paolo, kick. Don't care where. Kick.
08:54
Kick, replace, change a leg. Kick, replace, change the leg.
08:58
Yeah? Okay? Cat, almost get his head. Almost get his head.
09:01
Whoaa. Just after it, maybe. Whoaa, whaaay, ooh.
09:05
Grab her waist, come up back into her first, whoom, spin,
09:10
turn her, whoo-aa. (Snaps) Great.
09:14
Okay, let's have a little go from the beginning of that.
09:16
Just, let me slow down here. Fancy having eight -- (Laughter)
09:18
Fancy having eight hours with me in a day.
09:24
So, maybe too much. So, here we go, ready, and -- (Clicks metronome)
09:26
(Clicks metronome)
09:31
Nice, good job. Yeah? Okay. (Applause)
09:39
Okay, not bad. (Applause) A little bit more?
09:42
Yeah. Just a little bit more, here we go, from that place.
09:45
Separate. Face the front. Separate. Face the front.
09:47
Imagine that there's a circle in front of you, yeah?
09:50
Avoid it. Avoid it. Whoom. Kick it out of the way.
09:52
Kick it out of the way. Throw it into the audience. Whoom.
09:57
Throw it into the audience again.
10:01
We've got mental architecture, we're sharing it,
10:02
therefore solving a problem. They're enacting it.
10:04
Let me just see that a little bit. Ready, and go.
10:06
(Clicks metronome)
10:08
Okay, brilliant. Okay, here we go. From the beginning,
10:13
can we do our phrases first? And then that.
10:14
And we're going to build something now, organize it,
10:17
the phrases. Here we go. Nice and slow?
10:19
Ready and go ... um. (Clicks metronome)
10:21
(Clicks metronome)
10:24
The duet starts. (Clicks metronome)
10:28
(Clicks metronome)
10:32
So yeah, okay, good. Okay, nice, very nice. (Applause)
10:45
So good. So -- (Applause)
10:49
Okay. So that was -- (Applause)
10:51
Well done. (Applause)
10:54
That was the second way of working.
10:56
The first one, body-to-body transfer, yeah,
10:57
with an outside mental architecture that I work with
11:00
that they hold memory with for me.
11:02
The second one, which is using them as objects to think
11:04
with their architectural objects, I do a series of
11:07
provocations, I say, "If this happens, then that.
11:08
If this, if that happens -- " I've got lots of methods like that,
11:11
but it's very, very quick, and this is a third method.
11:13
They're starting it already, and this is a task-based method,
11:16
where they have the autonomy to make
11:19
all of the decisions for themselves.
11:20
So I'd like us just to do, we're going to do a little
11:22
mental dance, a little, in this little one minute,
11:23
so what I'd love you to do is imagine,
11:27
you can do this with your eyes closed, or open, and if you
11:29
don't want to do it you can watch them, it's up to you.
11:31
Just for a second, think about that word "TED" in front of
11:33
you, so it's in mind, and it's there right in front of your mind.
11:37
What I'd like you to do is transplant that outside
11:40
into the real world, so just imagine that word "TED"
11:43
in the real world.
11:46
What I'd like you to do what that is take an aspect of it.
11:48
I'm going to zone in on the "E," and I'm going to
11:51
scale that "E" so it's absolutely massive,
11:55
so I'm scaling that "E" so it's absolutely massive,
11:57
and then I'm going to give it dimensionality.
12:00
I'm going to think about it in 3D space. So now,
12:01
instead of it just being a letter that's in front of me,
12:03
it's a space that my body can go inside of.
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I now decide where I'm going to be in that space,
12:09
so I'm down on this small part of the bottom rib
12:11
of the letter "E," and I'm thinking about it, and I'm imagining
12:16
this space that's really high and above. If I asked you to
12:19
reach out — you don't have to literally do it, but in mind —
12:22
reach out to the top of the "E," where would you reach?
12:25
If you reach with your finger, where would it be?
12:28
If you reach with your elbow, where would it be?
12:30
If I already then said about that space that you're in,
12:33
let's infuse it with the color red, what does that do
12:37
to the body? If I then said to you, what happens if
12:39
that whole wall on the side of "E" collapses and you have to
12:42
use your weight to put it back up,
12:45
what would you be able to do with it?
12:47
So this is a mental picture, I'm describing a mental,
12:49
vivid picture that enables dancers to make choices
12:51
for themselves about what to make.
12:55
Okay, you can open your eyes if you had them closed.
12:58
So the dancers have been working on them.
12:59
So just keep working on them for a little second.
13:00
So they've been working on those mental architectures in the here.
13:02
I know, I think we should keep them as a surprise.
13:05
So here goes, world premiere dance. Yeah? Here we go.
13:08
TED dance. Okay. Here it comes. I'm going to organize it quickly.
13:10
So, you're going to do the first solo that we made,
13:14
yeah blah blah blah blah, we go into the duet, yeah,
13:17
blah blah blah blah. The next solo, blah blah blah blah,
13:20
yeah, and both at the same time, you do the last solutions.
13:24
Okay? Okay. Ladies and gentlemen, world premiere,
13:27
TED dance, three versions of physical thinking. (Applause)
13:30
Well, clap afterwards, let's see if it's any good, yeah? (Laughter)
13:33
So yeah, let's clap -- yeah, let's clap afterwards.
13:36
Here we go. Catarina, big moment, here we go, one.
13:38
(Clicks metronome)
13:40
Here it comes, Cat. (Clicks metronome)
14:06
Paolo, go. (Clicks metronome) Last you solo.
14:11
The one you made. (Clicks metronome)
14:15
(Clicks metronome)
14:19
Well done. Okay, good. Super. So --
14:30
(Applause)
14:32
So -- (Applause)
14:34
Thank you. (Applause)
14:37
So -- three versions. (Applause) Oh. (Laughs)
14:38
(Applause) Three versions of physical thinking, yeah?
14:47
Three versions of physical thinking. I'm hoping that today,
14:50
what you're going to do is go away and make a dance
14:53
for yourself, and if not that,
14:55
at least misbehave more beautifully, more often.
14:57
Thank you very much. (Applause)
14:59
Thank you. Thank you. (Applause)
15:02
Here we go. (Applause)
15:06
(Applause)
15:09
Translated by Joseph Geni
Reviewed by Morton Bast

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About the speaker:

Wayne McGregor - Dancer and Choreographer
Wayne McGregor and his dancers explore the uncharted territory where mind and movement intersect.

Why you should listen

Wayne McGregor is a man in perpetual motion. When not incubating new approaches to choreography with his company, Random Dance, he creates works for ballet, theatre and opera companies worldwide--including the Royal Ballet in London, where he's choreographer in residence, and contemporary dance powerhouse Sadler's Wells. In ongoing collaborations with psychologists, neuroscientists and cognitive scientists, Random dancers are helping researchers measure and analyze how the brain works in the creative process. Whatʼs emerged so far is that we can, and do, think with our bodies.

McGregor is no stranger to pop culture: he's designed movement for Thom Yorke of Radiohead and for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. This spring he collaborated with DJ Mark Ronson on Carbon Life, a piece for the Royal Ballet with vocals from Boy George. And he's creating a new dance piece for thousands of dancers in Londonʼs Trafalgar Square on Saturday, July 14.

More profile about the speaker
Wayne McGregor | Speaker | TED.com