Focus on a square in part of a Francis Bacon painting. Now describe it with your right elbow.
This is just one of many tasks that Wayne McGregor asked his dancers to ‘solve’ as part of the preparation for Atomos, a work that concerns itself with the atomisation of the body, breaking it down into its constituent components and emphasising its flexibility, in terms of both identity and lithe physicality. The piece’s performers are encouraged to interact in diverse and often unexpected ways: now contorted, a hand holding another’s foot while caught in a twisted stance; now impulsive, a rush of kisses on a bare leg. In one section, flashing lights illuminated alternate halves of the now-stationary dancers, splitting each body into two. The flickering shadows present here suggested minute movement when none was present, a decidedly disconcerting effect. The choreographic choices can in every case be traced back to McGregor’s philosophy: that the body does not finish at the skin; that the self is known and experienced with others, as presences or absences.
To elaborate on the latter notion, Atomos’s programme notes boast that McGregor ‘manipulates and organises’ bodies, a claim confirmed by the varying dissections of the ten-strong ensemble over the course of the work. Each dancer has the opportunity to take centre-stage, both alone and as part of a duo, while the remainder of the piece’s duration is shared between loose group work and more precisely choreographed trios, quartets and quintets. Often, such separation seemed to harbour further meaning. A passage featuring the five male and five female dancers segregated by sex, confined to opposite sides of the stage, before intermingling could quite readily be interpreted as a comment on the fluidity of gender, unsurprising for an artist that probes the edges of the individual and the collective.
Partway through the work, several television-like screens were lowered, suspended from the roof of the stage as if forming a child’s mobile. The screens’ visuals varied greatly in content, from abstract shapes to cityscapes, but rarely was there a discernible connection between the displays and the movement onstage. On the rare occasion that a relationship could be perceived between the two, though, it proved highly effective; in one instance, the screens’ streams of numbers were complemented by the dancers’ uttered gibberish. Or, at least, such was the overall result. One was unable to isolate the (possibly coherent) vocalisations of individual dancers, perhaps suggesting that, in an age of mass data, the babble of binary code is obscuring messages of greater import. Or is this just another example of McGregor’s favoured atomisation, breaking words into syllables and information into digits?
The score, a collaboration between composer Dustin O’Halloran and Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie, a member of ambient group Stars of the Lid, gave the impression of a loose collection of excerpts rather than of a composed whole. The work’s default sonic mode was an aquatic soundworld – all reverberation and string harmonics – reminiscent of Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós, or much of the Stars of the Lid’s back catalogue. Elsewhere, the score employed Shostakovich-esque strings, or minimalistic piano parts that clinked and shimmered like Glass. While the sections of Atomos’s choreography were loosely related to the movement from one extract to another, the divisions were neither fluid enough to allow for gradual evolution, nor sudden enough to ensure a startling difference.
The question that highly conceptualised dance pieces like Atomos must face is, how does the concept translate to the stage? Is the work as compelling as the ideas that lie behind it? In this case, the result was that there was too much on offer visually at any given moment. Often, one was forced to look in a single direction, or follow an individual dancer, while disregarding all others. While this might well be McGregor’s intention (and it would indeed be fitting) it became frustrating, and was indicative of the work’s shortcomings as a whole. Despite phenomenal dancing and some electrifying choreography, it was difficult to shake the feeling that Atomos would have benefitted from a greater degree of overall coherence, its chaotic atoms combining to create a more stable structure.
For more information about Atomos, please visit the Oxford Playhouse website.