Michael Clark used to be the enfant terrible of modern dance, whether dancing with The Fall in trousers with the seat missing, cavorting around with Leigh Bowery, or producing, now and again, really superior pieces of work such as ‘O’, ‘Mmm’, and fun pieces such as ‘Because We Must’.
Now, at 54 years of age, his company returns to the Barbican with a new show called to a simple, rock ‘n’ roll … song. These days Clark is much more mainstream, settled with a partner who is as much part of the establishment as he is (Stefan Kalmar, who runs the ICA), and with this show, he offers a sad but powerful goodbye to David Bowie – even appearing briefly himself (knowingly, ending prone on the floor) during a routine set to ‘Blackstar’, a fun piece with Patti Smith music, and a fusion of sound and movement to the music of Erik Satie.
It’s good to see him back and at the top of his artistic powers, creating something which is still sexy, still punchy, still just a little bit subversive. Although age and injury has stopped him dancing into his later years, he still has a stage presence which draws the eye, and in his company he has a number of performers we can watch for the future, especially Harry Alexander, tall, lithe and graceful.
This four-part dance show in remembrance of the First World War is a bit of a mixed bag, with some excellent moments (notably in the first sequence, ‘No Man’s Land’, choreographed by Luke Scarlett, where the women wrap their arms round the men’s shoulders in mimicry of the straps of kit-bags, and where the yellow hands of the women workers flash around the ghosts of their men-folk following battle in the trenches; and in the last sequence, ‘Dust’, choreographed by Akram Khan, which uses snatches of the recording of Cpl Edward Dwyer from 1916 singing to the tune of Auld Lang Syne to accompany a powerful duet between soldier and nurse, poignant even more so when you realise Dwyer was only twenty years old when he died in combat shortly after making the recording), and some mis-steps – Russell Maliphant’s ‘Second Breath’ uses a distortion of Richard Burton’s reading of the Dylan Thomas poem ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ which simply jars and distracts from the formation of bodies within the routine; George Williamson’s ‘The Firebird’ is beautiful and engaging, but does not belong here, within this theatre of war.
Tamara Rojo, artistic director of the English National Ballet, dances a major role in ‘No Man’s Land’, and she has the style and authority of the great classical tradition to work with – making her character very touching and memorable. Scarlett’s choreography is by turns gentle and aggressive, and his male duets work well to depict the scale of the conflict. In ‘The Firebird’, the dancing is centred by the damaged bird and the men who conspire to remove her finery. ‘Second Breath’ is an ensemble piece, well punctuated by recordings from the audio archives, snatches of which set the scene – “constant bombardment”, for example. ‘Dust’, however, is a stunning and powerful piece of work which stands well on its own, and has the most to say in tribute to those who lost their lives in the Great War; it also states a truth that women in munitions were building material that would kill other women’s husbands, fathers, sons, and the disconnect between this role and the one genetically expected of women, to care and nurture other people.
Michael Clark remains an associate artist at the Barbican Centre and as part of that association, has created a new double bill of work, entitled ‘New Work’, with music in the first half by Scritti Politti, and in the second by Pulp/Relaxed Muscle (who appeared live at the London dates).
Clark’s choreography has matured over the years from his initial shock tactics and freak performers (like Leigh Bowery) to fluid movements, emotionless trust between his performers (including Kate Coyne and Jonathan Olliver, formerly of the Northern Ballet Theatre), and a slightly naughty vibe, underpinned by his own bemusing cameos. I remember his leading roles and can see his influence directly in a couple of his younger male dancers – however, in this show there may be a little too much going on at times, notably a scrolling set of texts which eventually spell the sentence ‘I’m thinking of opening a zoo’, and the aforementioned live band performance which is rather intrusive when singer Jarvis Cocker blocks the audience view of the dancers.
Costumes have always played a big part in this group’s performances, often being a draw in their own right. Here the focus moves from men in short dresses through to two tone skin tight bodysuits. The opening of the show, too, is novel – a dancer slowly descends to the stage, suspended by a very flimsy looking wire.
‘New Work’ showcases mesmerising movement with pulsating music beats in the second half, and sweet mellow vibes in the first. This group does not disappoint, and long may Clark continue to make his brief showcase appearances alongside his talented performers.