Michael Clark: colourful career of a dance provocateur

Michael Clark — dancer, choreographer, perpetual provocateur — is not giving interviews about Cosmic Dancer, his career-spanning multimedia exhibition, which opens at London’s Barbican next month. According to the curator, Clark is not seeking to emulate his hero David Bowie by cranking up his mystique (Bowie also declined to give […]

Michael Clark — dancer, choreographer, perpetual provocateur — is not giving interviews about Cosmic Dancer, his career-spanning multimedia exhibition, which opens at London’s Barbican next month. According to the curator, Clark is not seeking to emulate his hero David Bowie by cranking up his mystique (Bowie also declined to give interviews for his 2013 career retrospective at the V&A). Rather, Clark is “shy” and prefers others to do the talking.

But, like Bowie, he has surrendered his archives to professionals — and he did talk to curator Florence Ostende for an interview in the accompanying book. “He gave us a lot of trust,” she says. “The exhibition is quite liberating — the artist is present but only through the work he has made. I wanted to encourage people to spend time with that work.”

Clark’s silence is perplexing because for most of the past four decades he has been anything but reticent. Among the most sublime dancers of his generation, the 58-year-old is celebrated equally for his visionary and transgressive stagecraft, with its elements of dada, punk and pop, his insouciance, and his disregard for convention. Even the toughest critics have been awed by his virtuosity, though some have been put off by his outlandish impulses and absurdist costumes (Clement Crisp, writing in the FT in 2012, dismissed part of one performance as “disjunct posturing and crass showing off”). 

But Clark, a teenage prodigy who grew up on a farm near Aberdeen and founded his company in 1984 at the age of 22, has never been interested in the dance establishment. From his classical training at the Royal Ballet to early stints with Ballet Rambert and New York avant garde dancers such as Merce Cunningham and Karole Armitage, through to a stream of anarchic productions of the 1980s, and with a succession of outsider-artist collaborators — Leigh Bowery, Mark E Smith and The Fall — Clark’s work has always been a kind of experimental visual art form to delight all-comers.

Clark during the filming of Charles Atlas’s film ‘Hail the New Puritan’ (1986) © Alexander James

Like all of his productions, the Barbican show is a collective effort, with Ostende bringing it all together. Clark wanted new commissions alongside clips and memorabilia “to let other voices speak, to see what their interpretation of the work would be”.

Collaborators and friends have responded, including filmmakers Charles Atlas and Sophie Fiennes, photographer Wolfgang Tillmans and artists Cerith Wyn Evans, Sarah Lucas, Peter Doig and Silke Otto-Knapp.

Wolfgang Tillmans, ‘Man with Clouds’ (1998) © Wolfgang Tillmans, Courtesy Galerie Buchholz Berlin / Cologne, Maureen Paley, London / Hove, David Zwirner, New York
Sarah Lucas, ‘Cnut’ (2004) © Sarah Lucas, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London

Ostende also called on Clark’s dancers, notably Kate Coyne, now his company’s associate director, to help explain the photography and film material from a dancer’s point of view. “She would point out virtuosity, how Clark always pushes bodies to the extreme. And she made it obvious how to encounter the work in a very different way from live performance,” Ostende says.

Coyne stresses that Clark’s archives have never been catalogued: “Florence had the idea we had a library of stuff to look through alphabetically, but it’s nothing like that. Michael saves everything, and he surrounds himself with these things. There is no distinction between an archive and what his life is.”

Clark in ‘Hail the New Puritan’ (1986) © Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York

The centrepiece will be a “multi-dimensional, multidirectional” walk-through video installation in the lower gallery. Titled “A Prune Twin”, it has been made by longtime Clark collaborator Charles Atlas and will allow visitors to experience what choreographers do. The installation draws on two films that document Clark’s early years: 1984’s Hail the New Puritan for Channel 4, and 1989’s Because We Must. The former is a series of performances set to the discordant music of The Fall, interspersed with a fictionalised day-in-the-life of a punky young Clark and his dancers — low budget, in the cinéma-vérité style and loosely based on The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night. “We made it before Michael was famous, and we pretended he was already famous,” says Atlas, who directed both. “By the time it came out, he was.”

The film evokes the manic creativity of these young outsiders of the Thatcher era: poverty-stricken and stranded in a hostile decade. “That was one of the things I found so refreshing. There was no such thing as success,” Atlas says. “People would just stay home and make outlandish costumes. That seems to still resonate, which surprises me.”

A performance of ‘Because We Must’ in London in 1988 . . . © Bridgeman Images
. . . and a poster for ‘Because We Must’ (1987) © Malcolm Garrett, courtesy Michael Clark Company

Atlas, a New York-based film-maker and video artist, has been Clark’s lighting designer for nearly every production since 1984. He has split the archive footage into nine channels, a process that, because of travel restrictions, has taken him three months via Zoom: “I can’t get every detail exactly as I would have liked,” he says. “It’s been a complicated puzzle.”

Much of Clark’s film archive was already at the Barbican (his company has been resident there since 2005). Other pieces turned up as news of the exhibition spread. “A lot of the costumes, for example, were thought to be lost,” says Ostende.

‘No Fire Escape in Hell’ (1986) © David Buckland

Highlights include an embroidered masked outfit designed and worn by Bowery for a sequence set to the Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs” in Because We Must. Bowery, an Australian performance artist and clothing designer who died in 1994 at 33, was the creative force behind many of the company’s 1980s costumes and much of its visual impact. Clark’s unforgettable bottom-baring leggings were his creation. “Rather than revealing the outline of the dancing body, it highlights it in ways that feel very different,” says Ostende of Bowery’s creations.

Missing is the syringe costume worn by Coyne for 2009’s stage production Come, Been and Gone, which was mostly set to Bowie’s music. She recalls it as being “bloody uncomfortable”.

Lorena Randi wearing Clark’s bottom-baring leggings in ‘Before and After: The Fall’ (2001) © Jake Walters

“But certain dancers can challenge themselves with extraordinary costumes,” she adds “[Clark] is careful about who he throws these things at, and you don’t always know until the last minute. And if there’s something that makes it difficult to move, somehow you’re just going to have to do it.”

What happened to it? “It’s a bit knackered and it’s gone missing. I think Michael may have worn it somewhere. We’re a similar size.”

Lorena Randi and Victoria Insole with the arm sculpture of ‘Before and After: The Fall’ (2001) © Andrea Stappert

The syringe costume was widely interpreted as a reference to Clark’s period of heroin addiction and subsequent absence in the mid-1990s, which followed Bowery’s death. Some feared Clark would not work again, but he returned to form in 2001 with a production called Before and After: The Fall, featuring an enormous masturbating arm sculpture by Lucas.

The Barbican show is not all colourful bombast. Otto-Knapp’s contribution is a series of 10 watercolours depicting dancers in minimalist, grey scales. It takes as its starting point Clark’s fascination with the choreography of Bronislava Nijinska of the Ballet Russes. “The way she worked with musicians, they were on stage with the dancers. Michael picked up on that [while working with The Fall] and that was what interested me. Her dancers, too, looked very different from one another, but they work together as a group.”

Silke Otto-Knapp, ‘Group (Formation)’, 2020 © Galerie Buchholz, Berlin / Cologne and greengrassi, London
Silke Otto-Knapp, ‘Group (Pyramid)’, 2020 © Galerie Buchholz, Berlin

Still, the title of the exhibition suggests a singular vision. On display will be previously unseen 1985 footage of Clark’s solo dance to “Cosmic Dancer” by T-Rex, from our caca phoney H. our caca phoney H, performed at London’s Riverside Studios. It is a delicate, spellbinding interpretation of Marc Bolan’s ballad about the compulsion to dance from “womb” to “tomb”. (Clark also employed the track in Mmm . . .  a 1992 stage production in which he performed his own birth with his mother, Bessie, on stage and with Bowery as midwife).

In more recent performances, Clark has appeared on stage only fleetingly. Perhaps his reluctance to talk reflects a new maturity, a declining interest in placing himself centre stage.

October 7-January 3, barbican.org.uk

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