Barbican Art Gallery, London
To January 3, 2021
For a long time regarded as the punk ‘bad boy’ of British Ballet, the now 58-year-old radical choreographer and dancer Michael Clark made his name as one of dance’s most innovative creative artists by fusing his classical training with punk, outlandish fashion and club culture. Unique and ground-breaking barely does him justice.
Now, in one of the largest ever exhibitions dedicated to a living choreographer, the Barbican is marking the 15th anniversary of its association with him. I will admit to not always being an admirer of his work but Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer is a must-see show, one that helps understanding of him and his work within the cultural context of the times.
At the heart of the exhibition is A Prune Twin, a new large-scale film installation by pioneering filmmaker, video artist and long-term collaborator Charles Atlas. Standing beneath the nine giant double-sided screens suspended from the ceiling, it immerses the visitor in Clark’s early work, although if you want to give the neck a rest from looking up, the views of individual screens from the upstairs balcony are excellent.
Included in the installation are segments from Atlas’ 1986 ‘anti-documentary’ on Clark, Hail the New Puritan, described as a ‘love letter to London’. In depicting a fictional day in the life of the dancer-choreographer, it provided an insight into the creative scene and queer subculture that he emerged from. There are also moments from his 1989 film, Because We Must, created around Clark’s stage production of the same title, a work that, “started on stage and ended up in Michael’s head, in a drug-induced hallucination,” as Atlas recalled.
Michael Clark: Originally I was, but now I’m addicted.
Clark breaks conventions everywhere, using music that most choreographers would run a mile from, combining particular music with choreography in ways others might never dream of. Most choreography advice would say to avoid top pop hits but one of my favourite moments from A Prune Twin shows Clark ignoring that and choreographing to Lulu and the Luvvers’ 1964 top ten pop hit, Shout, to great effect. The structure of the music is followed almost to the note. The fast, sometimes classical footwork is paired with plaint torsos as the dance fills the studio. With the execution is clean and precise, it’s a perfect balance of music and movement. I could have watched it again and again.
Twelve smaller rooms over two floors present all aspects of Clark’s career to date. More films (bring your own earphones), sculptures and paintings sit alongside some of his outrageous costumes, reconstructed sets, photographs and other archive material. That the exhibits are mostly arranged by collaborator rather than chronologically allows Clark’s work to be seen through their eyes.
Among the costumes are Leigh Bowery’s provocative and iconic bottomless leotards from Clark’s 1984 work, New Puritans, the choreography for which was inspired by post-punk group The Fall’s compositions and surreal, grotesque world. Also featured are the striking, sparkling, sequinned bodices and masks from Because We Must and a pink feathered tutu from the 1988 work, I Am Curious Orange, also with music by The Fall. Also in the exhibition is a reconstruction of the giant hamburger, designed by Clark as part of the latter’s set, and on top of which the bare-chested band member Brix Smith played the guitar.
Following Bowery’s death from an AIDS-related illness at New Year 1995, Clark developed a friendship with Sarah Lucas that resulted in the pair exploring the human body and sexuality in sculpture and dance. Lucas has two installations in the exhibition, most notably her 2004 work, Cnut, a concrete cast of Clark’s body, cut at the torso, sitting on a toilet smoking a cigarette, the whole resting on a ham sandwich. The cracked surface suggests an ageing body and alludes to the inability to halt time (‘Cnut’ is a nod to King Cnut (Canute) the Great, who famously failed to stop the tide).
Elsewhere, I was particularly taken by Silke Otto-Knapp’s installation of ten monochrome watercolour on canvas paintings. Their silhouette nature emphasises posture and movement superbly.
A collection of posters, programmes and flyers takes up one room. Presented in chronological order, it traces almost 35 years of the Michael Clark Company history. These too yell innovation and a new approach as Clark looked beyond traditional styles of performance documentation and photography as Clark worked with pioneering British graphic designers. No doubt echoing Clark’s notion of his company as a band, many have a strong connection to the visual language of punk music.
As rich and interesting as the other exhibits are, it is the films that are most grabbing. Many are really compelling. Although Clark quickly took up a multi-disciplinary approach to choreography, his underlying classical roots and ballet training are never far from the surface. There are wild antics and crazy stunts. There is plenty of experimentation and challenging of boundaries of gender and conventional representations of sexuality (I love the film of him dancing in a fluffy white tutu in a Woolworths store, being steadfastly ignored by the customers in a very British way) but you don’t have to look far for technical rigour, and even effortless grace, albeit in a Michael Clark sort of way.
I don’t go along with the view that Michael Clark rewrote ballet. He actually did more than that. His work has not always met with critical acclaim and has been called “disjunct posturing” and “crass showing off,” but he married academic dance with popular culture in ways that few had previously imagined possible. He explored places where others dare not go, or never even conceived of going. He was a maverick who made people sit up and take note. And art, all art, needs people like that.
Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer is at the Barbican Art Gallery, London, to January 3, 2021. A system of timed entry tickets is in operation. For more details and to book, visit www.barbican.org.uk