Human Geologies


Wayne McGregor's Obsidian Tear

Photo credit: Andrej Uspenski

“For many years I’ve been fascinated by this particular goddess,” the composer Esa-Pekka Salonen says of Nyx, the eponymous inspiration for his symphonic poem.

Mathew Ball in Wayne McGregor's Obsidian Tear

Photo credit: Andrej Uspenski

Calvin Richardson in Wayne McGregor's Obsidian Tear

Photo credit: Andrej Uspenski

“She’s one of the primordial figures in the classical pantheon, but the one we know least about, even her genesis is obscure. This shadowiness makes her an ideal figure to explore through composition.”

Nyx, for those whose classical mythology may be a little rusty, is the mysterious Greek deity who represents Night. According to differing sources, she either emerges from or precedes Chaos, and numbers among her own manifold and various progeny Death, Sleep, Destruction, Retribution, but also Brightness, Day and even Eros. An entity then, of the earliest principle, engendering many of the imperatives, both external and internal, which drive human existence in its rawest form.

It was the power and seductiveness of this goddess, palpable within Salonen’s epic score that excited choreographer Wayne McGregor, when he heard it at its premiere in Paris in 2011 – a performance that was conducted by Salonen himself. “It was overwhelming,” he recalls, “with an atavistic, almost mythic quality, but at the same time ethereal and strangely futuristic. I knew immediately I wanted to make a choreographic response.”

In articulating that response further, McGregor decided to juxtapose the fierce grandeur of Nyx with the poignant intimacy of Salonen’s Lachen Verlernt, a solo violin composition. These two pieces, in dramatic contrast, provide the musical backdrop for Obsidian Tear.

Where does the ballet’s title come from? Obsidian is of course a type of volcanic rock, and in fact small ovals of the substance are sometimes known as obsidian tears or Apache tears, based on a Native-American legend. In it, a tribe of warriors are forced back to a cliff edge by an outnumbering force of US Cavalry, and choose to leap to their deaths rather than be defeated by the invaders. The tears shed by their families on discovering the bodies crystallize into droplets of obsidian as they fall. Although McGregor’s ballet is not an interpretation of this myth, he finds something beguiling in its central metaphor: “it’s about how interior forces like violent emotion materially shape the geology of our surroundings, in the same way as they become archived in our own DNA.”

However his interest in obsidian was also deeply rooted in both the physical characteristics and the symbolic possibilities of the rock itself.  A black volcanic glass, formed when molten lava cools rapidly, obsidian seems to share some of the qualities of Nyx (both goddess and music): her darkness, her deep unknowability, arising from some hidden source, but also her shimmering almost-translucence, the aspect of night which thins the membrane between worlds so that truths are half-glimpsed in dreams.

Wayne McGregor's Obsidian Tear

Photo credit: Andrej Uspenski

It was perhaps this mysterious duality that caused obsidian to be given such an important role in symbolic and magical rites among many cultures including our own: the Aztec obsidian mirror in the British Museum is reputed to have at one time been owned by the renowned Elizabethan mathematician and alchemist Dr John Dee  – “the black stone into which,” according to Horace Walpole, “he used to call his spirits.”

The life of this strange rock mirrors too the confluence of ancient and modern that underlies McGregor’s vision for Obsidian Tear. Because of its glass-like structure, obsidian tends to fragment into sharp angular shards, making it an excellent cutting tool. Where once it assisted in bloodthirsty ritual sacrifice, today it lends itself in operating theatres to that most orderly of miracles, surgery.

The idea of slitting open the skin to expose the innards also provides an interesting metaphor for McGregor, who – to return to the title of the piece – suggests that the meanings of the two words ‘tear’ (as in weeping,) and ‘tear’ (as in ripping) feel related in the context of Salonen’s score. “It expresses the extremity of what happens inside the body when we feel intense emotional suffering, the sensation of something tearing and releasing fluid.”  He goes on to wonder if, perhaps, what occurs is more akin to a change of physical state in which, “the ‘atoms’ of emotion become liquid under pressure…” Which, of course is reminiscent of the journey of the obsidian itself – first rock, then molten lava, at last hardening into volcanic glass.

The latent sense of violence in all this is, of course, a feature of the music – its dreamlike shimmeriness swirling at times into crescendos which are juttingly dissonant, harsh and unforgiving. Yet, despite the apparent nihilism of such moments, Nyx retains an overwhelmingly dramatic character. Salonen remarks that, whereas in previous works, “I had been interested in continuous variation, so that things would keep changing all the time and there would be a kind of endless metamorphosis, in this piece it’s more like spaces – musical spaces which the listener wanders in between.”  McGregor agrees: “What’s extraordinary about each of those spaces that Esa-Pekka has written, is that there’s a kind of dramaturgical imperative to them, a kind of ‘narrative’– I say that, of course, in big inverted commas!”

He is referring to the long-standing conversation within – and around – his choreography about how narrative may be constituted or said to exist in a visual art form such as dance, where the viewer’s individual frame of reference plays an important and essential part in the construction or inference of meaning(s.) “At particular moments,” he continues, “I want meaning to be readily accessible, but at other times remote. I want the audience to navigate an individual journey through those moments because that reflects our experience of living. We don’t ‘understand’ everything all of the time. We don’t live in concreteness.”

A visit to rehearsals half-way through the ballet’s creation reveals a glimpse of McGregor’s response to the particular “dramaturgical imperatives” he finds in Salonen’s extraordinary score. Here, in the changing dynamics played out between nine male dancers is an examination of humanity in its most seething, atavistic – or is it futuristic? – guise. We could be in a biblical landscape, or modern day Iraq or some undetermined post apocalyptic wilderness. What are the rules and hierarchies that govern or drive this community? How is individuality experienced inside it? What is the nature of attachment – alliance born of necessity, or love?  What Fall is the price of transgression?

“Because of the power of the music I wanted to do something that is extremely brutal on stage – very raw and not very technological at all,” says McGregor of the visual dramaturgy of the ballet.  As those who are familiar with his work will know, collaboration with other artists is a central principle of his practice, and for Obsidian Tear, he is joined by lighting designer Lucy Carter, a long-standing collaborator, and also for the first time by renowned fashion director, Katie Shillingford, who has curated a collection of iconic designer clothing and distilled it into a priori principles to costume the all-male cast.

The designs for the stage environment have been created by McGregor himself: and “We’ve kept it simple: a huge wooden floor, no sidelights, the wings are totally out. A glowing strip of orange floor light suggests a volcanic source, but also a sense of  threat. It’s a scenography that is deliberately bold and declared, but because of that, the body in the space is also exposed and vulnerable.”

It is within this exposed setting that Obsidian Tear, this latest child of the ab-original mother, Nyx, will be born – but not until opening night when Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the orchestra in a unique collaboration between the two artists. “We want this organism to deliver in real time,” McGregor says. “The first time I saw Esa Pekka conducting Nyx, it seemed to me he wasn’t interpreting the music but channelling it. I can’t wait to see what happens when that music finds itself in dialogue with the dance.”

All images © The Royal Opera House 2016