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Wayne McGregor on collaborating with fashion designer Grace Wales Bonner to outfit youth dance work

Dancers in Wales Bonner Wayne McGregor dance piece

‘A fascination with bodies in movement, individuality of expression and a passion for clarity and exactness,’ says Wayne McGregor of what he shares with British fashion designer Grace Wales Bonner, who has outfitted his new work for the National Youth Dance Company (NYDC). The performance has its London premiere at Sadler’s Wells tomorrow evening (3 June 2023). 

The young company is made up of 34 dancers from 19 towns and cities around the UK, and celebrates its decade anniversary this year. It was founded in 2013 by Sadler’s Wells to bring together the country’s most promising dance talents. The work, which is titled ‘Novacene’ and choreographed by McGregor – who is NYDC Guest Artistic Director and Sadler’s Wells Associate Artist, alongside his role as resident choreographer for The Royal Ballet – was premiered in a sold-out show at Salford’s The Lowry in April (after the London performance, it will continue on a UK tour). 

Wayne McGregor on collaborating with Grace Wales Bonner

A selection of Grace Wales Bonner’s costumes for ‘Novacene’ (Image credit: Photography by Jack Thomson, courtesy of NYDC and Wayne McGregor)

‘Young dancers inspire us, they remind us of the “why” and they naturally innovate if they are nurtured to use their distinctive voices to create,’ McGregor says of the importance of the company, which brings together performers from an array of backgrounds with expertise in different styles of dance. 

‘Novacene’, an original work, takes inspiration from the 2019 book ‘Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence’ by James Lovelock, the environmentalist, scientist and thinker who invented the influential Gaia theory in 1972 (the hypothesis proposes that the Earth’s natural cycles and its living organisms work together to create a self-regulatory ‘biosphere’). The 2019 book – one of the final works before his death in 2022 – is a timely exploration of what will emerge from the development of artificial intelligence systems. It is a subject that McGregor says is a particular fixation of his – the world of ‘augmented humans, robots, hyperintelligence and how AI has the capability to supplement and evolve our physical and mental experience.’

The pieces take inspiration from vintage sportswear, and are completed with a subtle Wales Bonner emblem (Image credit: Photography by Jack Thomson, courtesy of NYDC and Wayne McGregor)

McGregor says he first met Wales Bonner through a mutual friend, MJ Harper, a Berlin-based dancer and choreographer who had previously been part of the Wayne McGregor Company (the eponymous company will also celebrate an anniversary this year, having been founded 30 years ago in 1993). ’MJ is now making their own incredible performance work; Grace and MJ collaborated on her collections, and MJ wore Grace’s clothes,’ explains McGregor.

The various items of clothing created by Wales Bonner for the performance – comprising vest tops, shorts, track jackets and sweat pants completed with a subtle ‘WB’ emblem – draw inspiration from vintage sportswear, an ongoing fascination for the designer (recent collaborations with Adidas have seen the designer explore similarly 70s and 80s-tinged garments). Calling her work ‘soulful’, the deep-thinking designer – who is of British-Jamaican heritage – seeks to cross geographical and cultural boundaries in her work, for ‘a distinct notion of luxury that infuses European heritage with an Afro Atlantic spirit,’ as she describes.

The work first premiered in Salford’s The Lowry (Image credit: Photography by Ravi Deepres, courtesy of NYDC and Wayne McGregor)

McGregor says that Wales Bonner already had an innate understanding of movement in her collections, something which easily translated to the necessity of outfitting dancers’ bodies for both the physical and emotional needs of a performance such ‘Novacene’. ‘What dancers wear on stage completely conditions how they feel about the piece and themselves dancing,’ he says. ‘It’s critical you match the conceptual idea for the work with the right designer – even if the designer then goes on to surprise you.’

 ‘I have always been inspired by the rich and expressive gestures of dance in designing silhouettes, so it has been a great pleasure to collaborate with NYDC and Wayne McGregor,’ says Wales Bonner in a statement. ‘I hope these custom pieces allow the young artists to shine with their full individuality and energy.’

After Sadler’s Wells, ‘Novacene’ will go on a UK tour (Image credit: Photography by Ravi Deepres, courtesy of NYDC and Wayne McGregor)

‘Novacene’ will not be McGregor’s only collaboration with a high-profile fashion designer in 2023. Announced in April, an as-yet-unnamed new work for The Royal Ballet – set to music by Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir and premiering 9 June 2023 at London’s Royal Opera House – will see McGregor work alongside Burberry’s Daniel Lee on the performance’s costumes. ‘Daniel Lee, an artist with unbridled imagination, is creating work of innovation, motion, and piercing beauty,’ said the choreographer at the time. ‘And with his exceptional passion for all forms of dance, he felt like a natural ally.’

‘Collaboration is about dialogue and setting out the shared space for creativity,’ says McGregor of why such recent partnerships have proved fruitful. ‘It’s about allowing the ideas to emerge without force.’

’Novacene’ premieres at Sadler’s Wells on 3 June, 2023, before a UK tour.

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