Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer in Dundee

V&A Dundee (to September 4, 2022)

David Mead revisits the exhibition about the work of choreographer and dancer Michael Clark, the so-called ‘bad boy’ of ballet, whose interdisciplinary explorations challenged conformity, broadening the boundaries for ballet and art in general.

After its run in London, the Barbican Centre-curated exhibition, Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer has moved north to the new V&A Dundee. In many ways, it’s a coming home. Scotland’s ‘punk ballet’ pioneer, who has been called the ‘David Bowie of dance’, was born and raised in Aberdeen in the 1960s, where his love of dance began with traditional Scottish dancing at the age of four.

Michael Clark
Photo Jake Walters,
courtesy V&A Dundee

Having seen the exhibition at the Barbican, would it be as appealing second time around? In one word, absolutely. Dance exhibitions can be dull affairs. Presenting a moving art form in a gallery exhibition setting is difficult. Static artefacts and archive material can seem very dull. Even more so than in London, Barbican curator Florence Ostende has succeeded in creating a show that is truly alive, however.

She told me that adapting the exhibition to a different building was “a really interesting process. Trying to imitate the open architecture of the Barbican simply did not work.” And in many ways, I can’t help feeling that the Dundee layout and the building’s flexibility lends itself better to the show. At the V&A it really does feel like you are being guided through the roughly chronological exhibition as it takes you through Clark’s artistic journey.

Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer bursts with energy and life. There is a lot of film, some of it on a big scale. That is certainly true of the first room you enter, where Charles Atlas’ video installation, A Prune Twin, which plays across nine huge hanging screens and several smaller monitors. The enclosed black space, with absolutely no distractions, make it incredibly immersive. It is so good, so fascinating, that I actually sat on the floor and watched it through twice, from different places, seeing different film and different coming together of film each time.

Ostende told me how Clark was heavily involved in the exhibition’s conceptual phase: trying to think what it meant to adapt the work of a dancer-choreographer into an exhibition space. We were asking questions like, Why are we doing this? What kind of experience do we want to create?

Charles Atlas’ installation A Prune Twin
Photo Michael McGurk; courtesy V&A Dundee

She explained how they spent a lot of time looking at how other shows presented artists’ lives and work, including those about Pina Bausch and about David Bowie. From that grew the idea of shaping the exhibition as a constellation of voices; all the collaborators and artists that have worked with him. “The vision for the show was that it was not only about Michael as a choreographer and a dancer but very much about Michael as a total artist.” In that, it succeeds brilliantly.

Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer explores his journey from young dancer to acclaimed dance-maker and cult icon. For all the super film of him dancing and his choreography, for all the costumes and ephemera, some of the most absorbing and revealing exhibits are those films where he is in conversation. It’s here that we really learn about Clark the person, his background, what drives him and where he comes from.

It may be from Atlas’s 1986 fictionalised documentary of a day in the choreographer’s life, Hail the New Puritan, but in A Prune Twin, I particularly enjoyed Clark’s conversation with a reporter who just drops by. He tells us how he used to hide his dancing from the other students at his Aberdeen comprehensive school, and how nice The Royal Ballet School was, at least being with other people interested in what he was interested in.

Michael Clark, in T-shirt and tutu
at the launch of Derek Jarman’s book
Dancing Ledge
at the ICA, London, 1985
Photo Steve Pyke/Getty Images,
courtesy V&A Dundee

In the interview, he quickly adds that he got bored at the Royal Ballet school after a couple of years, though. He reckons he was a “bad influence”. It’s impossible not to smile when he says his antics included sniffing glue at midnight.

Even better is a later interview with Muriel Gray of Walkie Talkie (‘the chat show with legs’) in which Clark sports a kilt and a Chanel headscarf.

Clark’s work is frequently raucous, abrasive and very rock n’ roll. There are quiet rooms, but often the exhibition pulses with sound. As much as I like A Prune Twin, my favourite has to be the film of current/SEE (1998) with music by Susan Stenger and her all-bass guitar band Big Bottom. With the band arranged in a semi-circle around the dancers, their giant amplifiers look like a modern-day electronic henge. It’s loud, very loud, but it’s not just the sound; it’s the energy of the music and dance, the creativity in pitching classicism against heavy rock. It blasts out of the screen and into the space.

What made Clark really different were the costumes and designs, however. In one conversation, he explains how he likes people with strong ideas, suggesting that too many stage designers try to please the choreographer too much.

But strip away the outrageous fashion, decoration and design (which admitted is not easy, so striking are they) and you can see that the poise and precision of classical ballet is never far away. Watching his performance and choreography in the films, while Clark may have gone AWOL from ballet in one sense, his dance has always remained solidly rooted in the lines, positions and steps of classicism. It is especially obvious in the studio footage. In Hail the New Puritan, he also reckons the lilting quality found in a lot of Scottish dancing has stayed with him too. It’s hard to disagree.

And there are plenty of weird costumes to look at including the late Leigh Bowery’s oversized double-breasted jacket, stuffed concertina trousers and protruding dinosaur tail of Because We Must (1987). In the same work, he sports a pink bodice, tiara and flowing cape. Then there are those with cut-out bums, revealing all, of The New Puritans (1984).

Michael Clark Company with The Fall in I Am Curious Orange (1988)
Photo Richard Haughton, courtesy V&A Dundee

Dance, as Clark says, has always has a sexual side to it (well, a lot of the time), but in trying to elevate itself to high art form status, it’s lost some of that, or at least had it hidden. By being provocative, he was rebelling against that. He was also well ahead of his time in challenging gender norms and celebrating what we now know as ‘queer culture’.

Elsewhere in the exhibition there is the giant hamburger that appears in I Am Curious Orange (1988), a show he created with post-punk band The Fall, essentially a satire on sectarianism, commissioned by the Holland Festival and loosely (very loosely!) based on William of Orange’s ascension to the British throne three hundred years earlier. In the ballet, Clark alludes to the king’s alleged homosexuality by presenting him as a dancing fruit.

Also in the exhibition are Sarah Lucas’ Cnut (2004), a plaster sculpture of Clark’s body sitting on a toilet; a new installation of portraits of Clark by photographer Wolfgang Tillmans; Peter Doig’s painting Portrait (Corbusier), made for the set of Clark’s come, been and gone (2009); paintings by Silke Otto-Knapp; and Turner Prize-winning films by Glasgow film-maker Duncan Campbell.

Lorena Randi and Victoria Insole in Before and After The Fall (2001)
Photo courtesy V&A Dundee

One thing missing is live performance. Ostende told me it was actually talked about but that Clark wasn’t really satisfied with the way it could take place within the run of a show in an exhibition format. “So, rather than having living bodies, we came up with the idea of trying to empower the viewer.” And that it how it feels, watching the screens, feeling the strength of the sound, being in the multisensory environment.

Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer is a dance exhibition, or more accurately an exhibition about a dancer and choreographer. But where it really scores, is in placing the man and his work within the wider cultural and societal context. In the 1980s in particular, and although never stated specifically, it is difficult not to read his creations as a pointed resistance to the Britain of that time.

Harry Alexander and Benjamin Warbis in to a simple_ rock _n_ roll…song (2016)
Photo Hugo Glendinning, courtesy V&A Dundee

Clark’s more recent work steps down from the anarchism that characterised his earlier creations. He remains one of the most innovative artists in dance, however. By introducing fashion, contemporary music and layers of extravagance to an underlying reality, his work reaches beyond the regular dance audience. Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer, the exhibition, does likewise. It’s a fascinating window on dance, art, fashion, life, and a very special creative artist.

Dundee will be the exhibition’s last stop. If you are in Edinburgh for the International Festival and Fringe, why not take a day off and go see it. It’s worth the trip; and a scenic train ride too.

Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer is at the V&A Dundee to September 4, 2022. Visit www.vam.ac.uk/dundee for details and to book tickets.

V&A Dundee
Photo Hufton + Crow

And on the V&A Dundee itself…

It is impressive but in a sort of low-key way, nestling into the landscape, cleverly not dominating anything around it. Opened in 2018 and sitting right against the river on the north shore of the Firth of Tay, the V&A Dundee is the centrepiece of the 30-year, £1 billion transformation of 8km of Dundee City Waterfront, that began in 2001.

Japanese architect Kengo Kuma’s design is inspired by the granite cliffs of Scotland’s north-east coast. The building’s two inverted pyramids, separate at street level, connect at the upper galleries floor. The archway between them frames a view of the River Tay and references the former Royal Arch, built to commemorate Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s visit to the city in 1844, but that was demolished in 1966.

V&A Dundee with RRS Discovery
Photo Hufton + Crow

The shape of the building and the way it leans over the water suggests the hulls of two ships side by side. Inside, the nautical reference is even more obvious, the oak-veneered panelling of the stepped interior walls and small windows look for all the world like the inside of a luxury ocean-going steamer and its portholes. An excellent video about Kuma’s ideas plays in the space outside the café.

Also home to the V&A shop and Visit Scotland information centre, the main hall is light and airy. Upstairs, the café looks out onto the neighbouring RRS Discovery. Built in the city, this is the vessel on which Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton undertook their first, successful, British National Antarctic Expedition from 1901-1904. Viewed from outside, the old ship and new building sit very comfortably alongside one another.

The airy interior of the V&A Dundee
Photo Hufton + Crow

Visit www.vam.ac.uk for more details and what’s on.

The V&A is a fine addition to Dundee’s burgeoning arts scene that also includes Dundee Contemporary Arts, the Cooper Gallery at the University of Dundee, the gallery at Broughty Castle Museum, and The McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery and Museum. All are highly recommended, as is Verdant Works, which tells the story of Dundee’s once-bustling textile industry.

Visit www.visitdundee.com for details.