Watching a Michael Clark piece is as gripping as watching a high-wire act. All his work seems to be strung taut between two poles: at one end, his impulse towards extravagance, towards flouting convention; at the other, the tug towards strict technique and demanding discipline. If that counterpull – between freedom and regulation – may be intrinsic to us all, few go to such polar extremes as Clark. You can see it, of course, in his own life, as he’s careened from ballet boy to wild child and back again. But the tension also underpins his choreographic work, and part of the suspense of watching it is seeing how – and if – it stays on that tightrope.
So there was, as always, a sense of anticipation in the audience for Mmm. First made in 1992, its impact has not lessened. The first half of the evening is essentially a nihilistic tug of war between the visible on the one hand (choreography, set), and the audible on the other (music by Public Image Ltd, the Sex Pistols and Wire). Played at ear-splitting volume, the music fills the auditorium with a thrashing energy, slamming every beat and smearing the wailing vocals with electronic fuzz. In contrast, the design is a abstract floor pattern, harshly lit, as icily inhuman as a sci-fi set. The eight dancers, neatly outlined in their leotards, have a spiky and oddly disjointed ballet style – limbs, body and arms all tautly geometrical. A quartet of men swizzle around like remote-controlled robots, arms hooked and hinged into an alien semaphore. There’s a coiled floorbound solo, there are strange stick-insect walks, and Clark himself makes a cameo appearance in a white coat, like some mad scientific genius. The dance is pegged to the music, but it doesn’t rely on it: it could work just as well with a completely different accompaniment. Here, it has an astringent effect: the hard, clean lines of the choreography cut through the heaving music like lime through beer.
If the music bares its feelings, the dance masks its heart. The dancers may be nude, but it’s as if their selves are clothed by their own exposed, unadorned bodies
Suddenly, Clark switches gear, radically. Barbra Streisand sings Send in the Clowns as the stage fills with naked dancers, furry hand-muffs strategically covering the remains of their modesty. Once again, music and dance are highly contrasting yet unexpectedly compatible. If the music bares its feelings, the dance, in a slow angled adagio, masks its heart. The dancers may be nude, but it’s as if their selves are clothed by their own exposed, unadorned bodies.
The second part of Mmm is Clark’s response to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, played live in the composer’s own arrangement for two pianos. Clark may be better known for his use of punk music – but Stravinsky, with his fierce, rule-busting rigour, seems to get closer to Clark’s paradoxical nature. So there is less of a chasm between music and dance than in the first part – and consequently, less sense of vertigo – but Clark has also found a richer vocabulary. Instead of stylising and distorting his technical ballet base, he seems now to be inventing something more his own – a floorbound, pelvis-centred style that is certainly built from ballet but breaks into unknown territory.
It’s this that gives the piece its edge. The mad/serious costumes – leather kilts, monks’ skullcaps, leotards split at the crotch, fake floral adornments and even the toilet-bowl headgear – are intoxicating; but also somehow expected. Underlying them is a gutsy, elemental dance style, with folk-dance line-ups sitting alongside expressionist contortions. Nowhere is this more evident than in Amy Hollingsworth’s gripping finale solo: pitched somewhere between destruction and self-destruction, Hollingsworth embodies both rebellion and repression as, bare-breasted, in jumbo-sized knickers and sporting a Hitler moustache, she writhes across the floor, limbs lashing in what could equally be birth pangs or death throes.
Clark is, by any standards, a loose cannon. Certainly his appearance in Rite as a kind of pregnant Mr Blobby tipped too close to absurdity. But sometimes, as with Hollingsworth’s solo, he’ll hit a target that you never knew existed. Next year, in his third and final collaboration with the Barbican Centre’s Stravinsky Project, Clark will make a new piece to Les Noces. How will he respond to that monumental score? Will he go to extremes? Will he walk a tightrope? The suspense, already is unbearable.