Intersections. Circuit boards. High rises. We live our lives in grids. Candy Crush. Tetris. Lite Brite. Sometimes the grids light up. Battleship. Crosswords. Stacks of steel walled freight containers. And sometimes they don't. A computerized grid studded with 3,200 LEDs served as the backdrop for Flesh in the Age of Reason, British choreographer Wayne McGregor's evening-length work that made its west coast premiere at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts January 17-19. Its image was simultaneously futuristic and antiquated, all cool brushed metal and flashing lights, yet technologically contributing little more than a digital kitchen timer or a string of Christmas lights set on a twinkle function.
In Flesh and the Age of Reason, the book from which McGregor derives his title and inspiration, historian Roy Porter pits the works of great men of the 18th century against the cankers, pustules, spasms, and tics that plagued their ailment-wracked bodies: Lawrence Sterne's tuberculosis, David Hume's scurvy, Lord Byron's tendency to corpulence. Work, he posits, was both distraction against the discomfort of the body and the only means by which the human spirit could endure in the potential absence of the soul.
Little frailty of the flesh is on display in McGregor's work, which keeps his ten dexterous dancers moving with aggressive, relentless speed and machine-sharp precision. The body as machine seems to be the principle behind the movement--indeed, McGregor names the "levers and pulleys" to which the human anatomy is compared in Diderot's Encyclopaedia as another influence. This translates, in McGregor's movement vocabulary, to an extrapolation and reduction of the linearity of ballet -- the plush suspended circularity of the classical idiom becomes the rapid ticking of pendulums, the folding of oiled hinges, the angularity of degrees perfected by a protractor. The body is made extensible and collapsible, as if it were entirely composed of joints. The industrialized nature of the physique is enhanced by Ben Frost's score, which combines electronic music with muffled vocals and the churning, whirring, clicking, and static of the engines and apparatuses of modern life.
The dancers move in all the possible combinations of numbers: solos, duets, trios, and so on. Occasionally they move in unison, as if to point out that their astounding virtuosity is no accident. However, the purpose of all the action seems undefined, as if we were observing the testing grounds of an automaton factory. A last duet mitigates the speed of the previous hour and brings the barest hints of intimacy: a man gives a woman a stylized piggyback ride. They look out into the distance together. They struggle in and out of a handclasp. He offers his hands. She lies on the floor. None of this happens to require great physical prowess to convey, and because of that it seems most human in all the noise.