Uzma Hameed on Wayne McGregor, Multiverse and making dance relevant

Why is Wayne McGregor such a celebrated choreographer? And what does a dance dramaturg do? Matthew Amer finds out from McGregor’s regular collaborator Uzma Hameed.

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“I remember writing Wayne McGregor – mad, bad and dangerous to know as the first line of my review.” This was Uzma Hameed’s initial reaction to McGregor’s choreography more than 20 years ago.

Back then, Hameed was reviewing for Dance Theatre Journal. These days she’s actually working with McGregor, one of Britain’s most acclaimed choreographers, as a dramaturg – helping to shape his work.

Their latest collaboration is Multiverse. It’s a new piece, set to the music of acclaimed composer Steve Reich. It debuts as part of a triple bill with former Wayne McGregor successes Chroma and Carbon Life. It runs at the Royal Opera House in celebration of McGregor’s 10 years as Resident Choreographer of the Royal Ballet.

“If you came to just listen to the music, that would be an amazing event,” says Hameed. Yet her description of Multiverse adds intriguing new layers.

“Wayne’s idea for Multiverse came from a musical starting point: looking at its structure and the idea of slipping, repeating and looping.” Hameed’s imagination, by contrast, was hooked by the story of Noah. It is, she explains, another example of slippage and migration. “It actually originated in Babylon – 2,000 years before its appearance in the Hebrew Bible. It’s a story originally told on clay tablets that somehow migrates into the Bible, the Quran and onwards.”

Multiverse at the Royal Opera House (Image: Andrej Uspenski)
Multiverse at the Royal Opera House (Image: Andrej Uspenski)

The result of these influences (and others) is a piece that moves from looking at form, to exploring a powerful human story, to a more abstract ending. Its references range from the mythical and epic to the very real, such as in the story of refugees.

“I hope it’s incredible,” says Hameed. It doesn’t sound as though it could be anything else.

So what is it that makes Wayne McGregor such a celebrated choreographer? For Hameed, it’s that he is “able to encompass so many areas in his thinking. He’s not a choreographer who’s just embracing the typical subjects of ballet. He’s very keen for dance to be an art form – like visual art or literature – that can explore any subject. It makes his work exciting and relevant and have something to say about where we are now. That’s important.”

His work, she argues, has the figurative, abstract nature of a painting in which your response to moments and heartbeats is more important than following a narrative. “Instinctively, emotionally and intellectually you find your own personal journey through the work. Moments will sing out to you depending on your frame of reference and what you bring to it.”

Multiverse at the Royal Opera House (Image: Andrej Uspenski)
Multiverse at the Royal Opera House (Image: Andrej Uspenski)

If you’re wondering what a dramaturg does in the world of abstract dance, you’re not the only one. Hameed, herself, is discovering more with every new project. In some situations her role is one of helping to shape the narrative or honing the story. Here it seems to be about bringing ideas, inspiration, reference and a fresh pair of eyes.

“Sometimes I sit in the room and it’s difficult not to feel fraudulent,” she admits. “I’m surrounded by amazing people. Wayne’s assistant Amanda has an amazing memory for detail of movement. Once Wayne makes a movement, he doesn’t necessarily remember the detail of it. It’s Amanda’s job to notate and remember it. I could sit there for weeks on end and I’d never get the detail. I comfort myself by thinking ‘It’s my job to look at the big picture.’ I do find it fascinating how as people we watch things differently. We find different things in it that strike us.”

That, perhaps, is the point – certainly with McGregor’s work. Those “flashes of something” as Hameed puts it, could be different for every audience member. But there are enough of them throughout his many acclaimed works – from the recent Obsidian Tear and Woolf Works back to early work like PreSentient and Nemesis – to spark a thought or an emotion in almost anyone.

Though Hameed was a “ballet girl, who had posters of ballerinas on her wall”, McGregor’s work reaches beyond the tutu-wearing stereotype to create pieces that force us to question and think. That’s what he’s been doing at the Royal Ballet for the last decade. And that’s why the Royal Ballet is celebrating him now.

Wayne McGregor’s Chroma / Multiverse / Carbon Life runs at the Royal Opera House until 19 November.