Wayne McGregor, the bold and brainy British rock star of the dance world and resident choreographer for the Royal Ballet, is an unlikely but timely force in the ballet world.
In some sense, he is the spiritual heir to the late Merce Cunningham. Both are known for highly idiosyncratic movement and for work that — although based on formulas and intellectual concepts — is deeply emotional.
McGregor, who has collaborated with the San Francisco Ballet, returns to The City this week. His company Random Dance appears in the West Coast premiere of “FAR” at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
An early adopter of multimedia, McGregor incorporates animation, digital film, electronic sound and 3-D architecture in his work. He even has combined virtual and actual dancers.
More recently, McGregor, who was appointed research fellow at Cambridge University’s department of experimental psychology, has been collaborating with cognitive scientists.
His latest work continues his ongoing investigation into the relationship between mind, body and matter as inspired by two books. Roy Porter’s “Flesh in the Age of Reason” (hence the abbreviated title “FAR”) examines how scientific innovation and rational thought in the 18th century changed humans’ understanding of body and soul.
The illustrations from Diderot’s 18th Century Encyclopaedia — including anatomical drawings from autopsies and descriptions of new devices like microscopes — provided insights into what he calls “the levers and pulleys” of human action.
“You see how it works,” McGregor says. “At the end of the day, these aren’t robots — there’s always a human being doing it. And I thought that stripping away of layers was analogous to the very beginning of the enlightenment.”
One of McGregor’s research projects led to the pioneering of a piece of software called the Choreographic Language Agent, programmed to provide movement options, show previous patterns and suggest possible changes.
“It’s an interesting way of dialoguing with the technology,” he says. “It is able to expose some of your habits and either use or break them.”
His quixotic choreography takes his dancers to unusual, sometimes extraordinary, lengths. One movement, a rippling motion, bends torsos concave and convex. Then, suddenly, bodies go in completely unexpected directions as the motion reaches extremities and joints. It’s a different, but not less challenging, kind of physical limit-pushing than that of ballet.
IF YOU GO
Presented by San Francisco Performances
Where: Lam Research Theater, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard St., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $35 to $60
Contact: (415) 978-2787, www.sfperformances.org