Edmund de Waal on creating an elemental language of movement for Wayne McGregor

Edmund de Waal on creating an elemental language of movement for Wayne McGregor

When Wayne McGregor rang up Edmund de Waal to ask if he would be interested in collaborating on his latest production for the Royal Ballet, de Waal’s answer was: ‘Yes. Obviously.’

‘I must be one of Wayne’s biggest fans,’ says the British ceramics artist of McGregor, who has enjoyed 12 remarkable years as the Royal Ballet’s resident choreographer. ‘He is, I think, the busiest man on the planet. But what I find extraordinarily productive is that each project he takes on is unique, and has its own identity. He never repeats himself.’

The fandom is mutual. ‘McGregor had seen some of my installations, read a few of my books,’ adds de Waal, wryly. ‘But, importantly, he also recognised that this particular project might appeal to me because of my background.’

To mark the centenary of American composer Leonard Bernstein’s birth, McGregor has created a new work inspired by his choral piece Chichester Psalms (1965), enlisting de Waal’s help to design the set. De Waal grew up in cathedrals – his father was the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral from 1976 to 1986 – so the pulsating rhythm of psalms are as familiar, and close, to him as a heartbeat. The resulting work, Yugen – on stage at London’s Royal Opera House until 8 April – is a sermon on the power of artful collaboration.

Edmund de Waal Ballet Set design for Wayne McGregor, a duet of dancers

Joseph Sissens and Akane Takada in Yugen. © Royal Opera House. Photography: Andrej Uspenski

The journey to get there was reciprocal, shared, tactile. ‘We spent wonderful days at my studio, picking things up, playing with clay, and then I spent time with him, over the course of a year, in his extraordinary experimental space in Stratford.’

Of course, delicate de Waalian ceramics and overextending ballet dancers are not a good combination. McGregor ‘pushed and gently tested’ de Waal outside of his comfort zone, to create a series of functional, imposing vitrines, between which the dancers and lighting spill. ‘There’s a kind of irreducible quality to this piece, and I think we’ve achieved that with the set. It talks a language of essential, elemental movement.’

Its a diversion from McGregor’s recent shows, which so often dazzle with technological wizardry, and the pulse of contemporary pop. There is a distinct absence of glittering tech here. There’s a pared-back purity, a meditative peace, a privation of ‘nowness’. ‘The powerful music from the Bible is in no way literalised,’ de Waal makes clear. ‘But I was trying to produce spaces that had some kind of symbolic power.’

Power, in its purest, spiritual form, is in abundance on opening night, which de Waal describes as ‘one of the most amazing of my life’. But it was also utterly ‘petrifying’. He got up on stage and took a bow – to rapturous applause – sparking in him the excitement of immediacy not often extended to artists, who usually must wait, somewhat disconnectedly, for the reviews.

‘There’s enormous adrenaline in making museum exhibitions and gallery shows, but you don’t get that apprehension of connection in the moment as you do when working with performance,’ he continues. ‘I can see how profoundly addictive that might be.’

In fact, his first experience with creating performance art has been a ‘revelation’ for de Waal. ‘This process has opened up another line of thinking and working. It’s wonderful. I want more.’

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