Physical education

Wayne McGregor, Britain's hottest choreographer, tells Alice O'Keeffe that dance holds the answer to

Wayne McGregor leans his gangly body against the mirrors in the airy Jerwood Space studios and observes as his dancers perform a complex sequence of movements. First their heads bob down like so many birds, then their arms shoot rapidly up and down, measuring out the space between collarbone and shoulder, elbow and wrist. Their backs arch and flex and their shoulders shudder. It is like watching a beautifully synchronised set of malfunctioning robots.

The group moves briskly through sequence after sequence. As McGregor calls out numbers, the dancers launch into long set pieces, jagged solos and smooth, sliding duets. McGregor contributes the odd instruction: "This needs to be like underwater dancing", "Make it fatter!" and, once, "Imagine you are a boa constrictor that has just eaten something." The subsequent change is almost imperceptible, but somehow that boa constrictor has made it into the movement.

To someone like me, whose co-ordination hit a ceiling in level one aerobics, the dancers' physical memory and ability to respond to instruction with pinpoint accuracy seem incredible. "They are like computers," says McGregor afterwards. "We work on a set of sequences together. Weeks later, we'll go back over them and they'll still be there in the hard drive." It is a characteristic McGregor analogy: throughout his career he has been preoccupied with the connections between dance, technology and the science of the body. For his works AtaXia and Amu, he collaborated with neuroscientists and heart specialists respectively. The former was inspired by a disorder affecting bodily co-ordination and the latter looked at how emotions take place in the body.

For his latest show, Entity, which premieres at Sadler's Wells this month, McGregor has once again been distracting scientists from their test tubes. This time he has been working with a group of "cognitive scientists" on a project that sounds, when he first tells me about it, entirely incomprehensible. "We have been working on identifying kinaesthetic intelligence . . . unpicking it a bit and using the information to build artificially intelligent choreographic agents." I wonder, rather hopefully, whether that means dancing robots. "No. Not robots. The agents solve problems but they don't dance the solution. They might generate architecture or a series of numbers."

Right. I look baffled enough for him to take pity on me, and he starts to explain again, in the manner of a teacher with a slightly simple pupil. "What interests me is how the way the brain works makes an impact on choreography. What processes does it involve, in terms of geometrical organisation, mathematics or timing?" This only really starts to make sense when I see some of the piece in rehearsal, with its repeated motifs of measuring the body, and of organising and controlling the space around it. But it is important to recognise that, for all his scientific terminology and laboratory-based research, when McGregor gets into the studio the choreography is still an instinctive, artistic process. "I always say that the research is not directly related to the piece. The research is one thing, and the piece when it is created is something independent."

McGregor is the bright hope of British dance at a time when most of the biggest talents working here come from abroad. Inspired as a child by John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, he trained first at Bretton Hall in Leeds, and then in New York. His work has an instantly identifiable style, all jerking limbs and awkward stretches, drawing on what he describes as a "dystopian view of the body . . . which reflects the kind of fractured, dysfunctional world in which we live". His shows with his own company, Random Dance (recently rechristened, with quirky typography and a dash of ego, Wayne McGregor | Random Dance), have consistently received rave reviews, and in 2006 the classical dance Establishment was rocked when he was appointed choreographer-in-residence at the Royal Ballet. He debuted in style with Chroma, a work based around music by the rock group the White Stripes.

McGregor has been distinguished by his determination to engage with the world outside the contemporary dance scene, including a long-running interest in working with young people. He also has a rare ability to embrace both the classical and the populist (he choreographed Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). "He is the most resolutely inquisitive man I know," says John Ashford, theatre director at The Place and a long-term champion of McGregor's. "That is the defining property of his work - it is only recently that he has become much more interested in top-flight technical ability. He has this energy that is not typical of the British dance scene."

In conversation, McGregor flits easily and with equal enthusiasm between topics such as neurological science, dance education, Opera House subsidy (like a good employee, he defends it) and the obesity crisis. He is not sold on the thesis that Britain is experiencing a "dance craze" as a side effect of popular TV programmes like Strictly Come Dancing. "These shows are challenging people's preconceptions of what it is to dance. I love seeing sportsmen talk about how physically demanding dance is. My concern is that they are now the only expression of dance on television. That level of visibility needs to be balanced with material which is challenging in a different way."

The fact is that Britain has got quite some catching up to do in fostering a dance-friendly culture. Historically, dance has trailed behind music and other arts in terms of funding - Tony Hall, chief executive of the Royal Opera House, described it in a recent report as the "Cinderella art form" - though the government's announcement last month of £5.5m of new funding for dance education goes some way towards addressing that. "Despite all the talk, this is one of the least exciting periods I can recall in British dance," says Ashford. "The health of the whole scene relies on young choreographers, and not enough are coming through."

For McGregor, our lack of interest in dance is a symptom of a wider cultural difficulty in engaging positively with our bodies. "We haven't got a very good body culture here, and there are lots of factors which impact on that, like weather and climate, the lack of activity, the excess, the easy availability of food. A problem like obesity is endemic to the way we live and treat our bodies."

He argues that dance has a fundamental role to play in fostering a more positive body culture. "It's always strange to hear the government talk about obesity programmes and making people do exercise to keep healthy. To me, what is important is having an intimate relationship with your body, feeling good about it. And that's a psychological thing - it's about how you think about your body and what it can do."

This is not a problem that can be solved by spending hours at the gym. "Creative forms of exercise like dance, or capoeira, give you a kind of physical thrill because they are also a social interaction. When you start creating and solving problems with your body, you start thinking physically. That's the question, really - how do you engender a culture of physical thinking?"

In his role at the Royal Opera House, McGregor is working with the Royal Opera school to develop the skills of young dancers he considers to be potential choreographers. And he will open the season in September with a festival that will include artists who would not usually perform at the Opera House. Both projects are part of an attempt to open up the world of ballet to new influences and encourage a spirit of creativity and imagination. "The ballet world has traditionally focused on turning out perfect, classically trained bodies, which is very time-consuming. But if you want people to produce great new work you have to encourage dancers to get out and experience the world."

"Entity" is at Sadler's Wells, London EC1, from 10-12 April and then on tour. For further details visit: www.sadlerswells.com and www.randomdance.org

The C.V.

1970 Born in Stockport, near Manchester. Inspired by John Travolta, he studies ballroom, disco and Latin American dancing as a child, and continues his training at Bretton Hall, West Yorkshire, and the José Limón Dance Foundation in New York

1992 Founds his own company, Random Dance, which takes up residence at The Place in London

2003 Appointed research fellow in the department of experimental psychology at Cambridge University, where he researches his ballet AtaXia

2004 Choreographs Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire using children from inner-city schools. Comments that he "changed the demographic of Hogwarts"

2005 Choreographs production of Richard Strauss's Salome for English National Opera

2006 Appointed resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet. Turns his hand again to opera, directing Purcell's Dido and Aeneas at La Scala in Milan

2007 Chroma (for the Royal Ballet) wins an Olivier Award

Grace Shortland