Choreographer Wayne McGregor has long drawn strength from the creative partnerships he forges outside the sphere of dance, with former collaborators numbering architect John Pawson and artist Julian Opie. For his new production at the Royal Opera House in London, ‘Tetractys – The Art of Fugue’, based on Johann Sebastian Bach’s final musical work, he turned to American artist Tauba Auerbach to create the striking set and costume designs.

Best known for her paintings, the New York-based artist – and Wallpaper* Handmade collaborator – has long been fascinated by the principles of mathematics, physics, language and semiotics. Having formally trained as a traditional sign painter, Auerbach devised a series of illuminated geometric glyphs for McGregor’s latest production, her first ever foray into ballet.

‘Designing the sets and costumes for Tetractys was a steep learning curve - I’m used to making sculptures that you can walk around and see from every angle,’ says Auerbach. ‘Here I needed to create a 3-D work that was still compelling from every angle, but that would be visible from only one angle for each person in the audience. Each person’s vantage point would be different but equally important.’

Using numerology and geometry as the springboard for their creative venture, McGregor and Auerbach were mutually drawn to Bach’s The Art of Fugue (it is rumoured that the German composer infused the score with musical codes, such as weaving his name into the final stanza, just before its strange and abrupt ending). The ballet is divided into seven sections, each featuring one of Auerbach’s glyphs, which are infused with their own symbolism and codes.

Composer Michael Berkeley’s orchestral adaptation of the score was equally influential on Auerbach’s designs. ‘I have a habit of thinking about things in a very graphic and linear way and the insight I got from his arrangement was the way he dealt with the music as a set of swelling volumes,’ explains the artist. ‘I wanted to incorporate that way of reading the music into visuals as well.’ To wit, Auerbach complements the fluid musical arrangement with colour gradation in the costumes, reflected also in the ever-changing patterns of her glyphs.

Supported by Outset, ‘Tectractys – The Art of Fugue’ is being shown as part of a triple bill at the Royal Opera House, alongside Frederick Ashton’s classically romantic ‘Rhapsody’ and Kenneth MacMillan’s harrowing ‘Gloria’, a poignant tribute to the generation lost in World War I. Elsewhere in London, Auerbach will celebrate her first UK solo museum show (opening 15 April at the ICA) with a new series of photographs and sculptures inspired by symmetry and reflection.

TAGS: PERFORMANCE ART