Sunday, 27 May 2012

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives - A Chamber Opera by Wayne McGregor and Max Richter

One of the UK's most experimental and accomplished contemporary modern dance choreographers, Wayne McGregor has now turned his attention to directing his first chamber opera. Teaming up with the experimental composer Max Richter, artist Lorna Heavey and long-time collaborator, lighting designer Lucy Carter, McGregor returns to familiar themes of biological science, technology and metaphysics in this adaptation of the American neuroscientist David Eagleman's book of short stories: "Sum: Forty Tales From the Afterlives", which plays with multiple possibilities of an afterlife.

McGregor often takes inspiration from works of literature and scientific texts; this piece also incorporates the body, its sounds and movement, with science and art meeting to inform and feed off the qualities each possess, forming a kind a cyborg performance of the biological and technical. Emma Crichton-Miller comments on this trade mark of McGregor's oeuvre "It is not just that he has used video projection, digital and thermal imaging, or screen animation as production tools, but that on a deeper level he has used ideas from digital technology to inspire him. Concepts such as coding/decoding, generative systems, algorithms and cognitive mapping have informed his understanding of the choreographic process and he has also used different computer programmes to generate movement."

For this chamber opera there is no designated seating: the audience waits to be led in by an usher, down to the stage area of the Linbury Studio Theatre, downstairs in the Royal Opera House building. We are told we can sit anywhere we like except for three "reserved" seats at the front. We find four grouped rows of fold-up chairs set up in a grid, all positioned to face the centre of the room where the sunken cubed orchestra pit is. Four high walls surround this intimate space with gauzed screens on each of the four walls. No one knows what to expect, and there is no stage for the singers.

The audience have all chosen their seats and we sit eagerly awaiting what is about to happen. We wait; nothing happens. But then after a while, three very ordinarily dressed people walk in and take the reserved seats. The lights all go out and then come back on with a very restrained amount of smoke machine fog wafting above our heads. Heavy, dense, bone-vibrating bass starts up, a familiar marker that a Wayne McGregor performance is about to start - it's as if he wants to wake us up from the inside out. The orchestra starts up tentatively, a harp is plucked and some icy electronic sounds pulse. A spotlight comes down from above and one of the "reserved seating" guests starts booming out in a deep baritone. The unassuming woman sat next to him seems to want to pretend he isn't there, concentrating off in the distance trying not to look at him, or act self-conscious.

The four screens that surround us throughout the performance project images of offices spaces, lifts, train stations, busy streets, endless lines of coding charging on into eternity, threads getting tangled, maps, cartographical diagrams, human faces reproducing themselves, mathematical patterns, and lots of abstract and rhythmic graphics that reminded me a lot of the early experiments in film of Fernand Léger, Man Ray and Hans Richter in the 1940's.

The singers perform selections and extracts of the short stories from Eagleman's book, sometimes sung individually, sometimes all three together and sometimes spoken like a story or like an instruction. The second story was of how we might remember our time alive, in the afterlife, like lists of activities and their durations: the soprano sings how we will remember spending "thirty years asleep", "two years on the toilet" "three months doing laundry" - and then he sings "fourteen days of pure joy" and the woman sat right in front of me, with a voice louder than I thought humanly possible, also sings out "FOURTEEN DAYS OF PURE JOY!", I nearly fall off my seat. It gives me some shivers that aren't altogether pleasant or unpleasant: her voice is just so loud and high, I've never been that close to anyone singing like that before, but it's quite something.

The three singers move around the space, moving in and out of the rows of chairs, swapping seats, walking around, touching the people they pass. The plan for this piece was for it to be "interactive" with audience participation: we are involved to the extent that we are all physically close together, sat in a small group in a fairly small space with the performers. But when the singers turn to the people sat next to them, to sing to them or to tell them their story, the audience members all freeze up, not quite knowing how to deal with this unusual breaking with the convention of separation between stage and audience. (I'm not sure what I would have done if I had chosen to sit in one of the front rows and had one of the singers turn to me and start singing at me - probably get a bit embarrassed, giggle, give them a wink?)

This experience of being in a little box, surrounded by strange and slightly disorientating projections and being sung moving, funny, sometimes scary songs/stories by these three really incredible singers is really wonderful. The tinted lighting does make the whole room and audience go a bright green colour all over at one point, which is a bit queasy-making, but other than that it is all gorgeous, like being submerged into a dream. Max Richter's score is also wonderful, I don't have the musical vocabulary to describe it but it has a chilly feel to it, lots of violins, Bösendorfer, harpsichord and what sounds like a harmonium organ - it is just lush.

Towards the end, the singers disappear, leaving through little doors at the sides. Then the screens fill with the bodies of two dancers: after all, we can't leave without seeing a McGregor-choreographed dance. The two dancers wrap their bodies endlessly around each other, over and under, twisting and jutting, with awkward elbows and dipping hips - the usual fare of McGregor's moves that are not conventionally beautiful, but strong and sinewy and spiky, battles of attraction and repulsion between the bodies of the dancers. After this, the singers come back to join us in our little cube; they have in their hands little white envelopes that they give out to us. When we open them they contain extracts from some of the stories from Sum, Forty Tales From the Afterlives. (If this sounds precious or hokey, perhaps you had to be there: it was kind of great). As all the notes inside the envelopes are different, everyone starts to have a nose around to see what people next to them have got; at the end I pinch a few that people have discarded. I like a souvenir.

The Book: David Eagleman's Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives on Amazon

The Opera: Sum by Wayne McGregor and Max Richter at the ROH

Wayne McGregor's Dance Company: Random Dance

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