Michael Clark’s Swamp (1986) in a 2004 revival by Rambert
Michael Clark is the closest that ballet has come to producing a real rebel yell. He is constantly spoken of in legendary terms: Apollo, Dionysus, Icarus. He’s both the fallen angel and prodigal son of dance.
Born in 1962 in Aberdeenshire, Clark learned Scottish dancing as a child and went to the Royal Ballet School at the age of 13. There, in a pattern that would be writ large in his career, he both excelled in ballet and rebelled against it. He won prizes for dance and choreography but would bunk off school to go to punk gigs. He got caught glue-sniffing but wasn’t kicked out; he’d already landed the lead part in the school production.
Upon graduating, Clark turned down a coveted position with the Royal Ballet in favour of Ballet Rambert. He spent time in New York – including summer school with Merce Cunningham and performing with choreographer Karole Armitage – and then became resident choreographer at London’s Riverside Studios in 1982. He launched his own company in 1984, which quickly became as big a scandal as it was a success. Clark poured a heady mix of clubbing hedonism, rock, fashion, sex and transvestism into his works, which featured earsplitting music by acts including the Fall and Laibach. There were outlandish costumes by designers BodyMap and Trojan, and major parts for non-dancers, most prominently his mother Bessie and underground icon Leigh Bowery, who made an indelible impression in 10in heels, brandishing a chainsaw.
Clark received commissions from other dance companies, including Paris Opera Ballet and Scottish Ballet, but his fame and fanbase went far beyond the dance world. Art-pop band Scritti Politti featured him in the video of their hit Wood Beez (1984); film-maker Peter Greenaway cast him as Caliban in Prospero’s Books (1991); the Anthony d’Offay gallery commissioned his 1989 work Heterospective (featuring Clark enacting sex with his lover, American choreographer Stephen Petronio, while a row of plastic penises protruded from the wall).
Attracted to extremes, Clark also began taking heroin to “discover physical addiction”. (He later said, “I didn’t realise it would last 10 years.”) With drug dependency, depression and the death of friends from overdoses or Aids, his life imploded. In 1994, he moved in with his mother in Scotland. In 1998, clean, he was welcomed back by faithful supporters – including Val Bourne of Dance Umbrella, and his old ballet teacher Richard Glasstone – and encouraged by newer friends from the art world (Sarah Lucas, Damien Hurst, Tracey Emin and others auctioned works to raise funds for him in 2006).
Clark’s recent output has been a mixture of new works for his own company and others (Ballet Boyz, Mikhail Baryshnikov) and revisits of earlier pieces. On a more stable footing now, he is currently an associate artist at the Barbican, and his work is less excessive and more considered than it used to be. He still wears his trademark safety pin in one ear.
Watching Michael Clark
You could call Clark an “iconoclassicist”. He’s enjoyed tearing down conventions, especially ballet’s air of decorum and taste. He’s blasted the stage with rock music, danced ballet in platform shoes, worn toilet-bowl headgear and provocative prosthetics (dinosaur tails, dildos). O (1994) began with his own bare-breasted mother “giving birth” to Clark; Mmm (1992) ended with a topless woman in huge Y-fronts and a Hitler moustache; Before and After: The Fall (2001) featured Sarah Lucas’s sculpture Wanking Arm doing just that.
But classical ballet remains at the heart of Clark’s choreography, even as he works to disrupt it. You recognise classical steps, positions and sequences, with balletic lines of beauty are made kinky by unexpected angles, torques and changes of direction (in this, you see the influence of Merce Cunningham). This makes his choreography look highly controlled and technical. You notice it most in his trio of Stravinsky works and Swamp, but even at his most theatrically anarchic there is a sense of strictness in the dancing.
You might (as many dance critics do) prefer the pieces with less of an up-yours attitude, or you might (like many audiences) prefer the punch of provocation. It’s the tension between them that marks Clark’s iconoclassicism.
Leigh Bowery, who died in 1994, was among Clark’s closest collaborators. Designer and film-maker Charles Atlas remains his long-term artistic partner, as does costume designer Stevie Stewart (formerly one part of fashion label BodyMap). Clark’s choreography looks best on highly trained but individually distinctive dancers, among them Ellen van Schuylenburch in the earliest years, later Matthew Hawkins, Julie Hood and Vivien Wood, and recently Amy Hollingsworth and Kate Coyne.
Clark stole a hurdy-gurdy for his first piece of choreography at the Royal Ballet School, called Belongings. “It seemed important not to pay,” he said. But he took it back afterwards.
In his own words
“I was reacting to a particular dance ethos – which had always seemed to mean saying no to spectacle, to comedy or narrative, no to virtuosity. I wanted to say yes to all those things.” – Interview with Adrian Searle, Guardian, 2001
“Most people who think they’re leaving classical ballet tend to reject it completely. I quickly realised it was very much part of me … Outside the classroom I tend to not have any boundaries, so I respond well to someone telling me that this is right, you cannot do that.” – Interview with Ismene Brown, Telegraph, 2004
“It’s taken me a long time to believe that dance itself is enough.” – Interview with John O’Mahony, Guardian, 2003
In other words
“If the shock tactics he paraded were sometimes gratuitous, they also lent his pieces a deviant glitter and trashy beauty.” – Judith Mackrell, Guardian, 2001
“One of the things that immediately struck me about Michael’s work is how very formal it is. This is something we share, even though it is never the thing that’s talked about. It is always easier for people to discuss what appears to be outrageous.” – Sarah Lucas, Guardian, 2001
“It’s the contrasts that beguile: between the erotic aggression of the music and the cool self-possession of the dance. Bad and beautiful: that’s Clark all over.” – Debra Craine, Times, 2005
“Enfant terrible of dance.”
(Twenty years ago, that was already a cliche.)
Karole Armitage, an American choreographer who Clark performed with in 1982; her punk-inflected “drastic classicism” was an influence on Clark’s own work.
Lindsay Kemp – if Armitage influenced some of Clark’s choreography, Kemp had some of his gay imagery and theatrical iconoclasm.
Now watch this
Annie Nightingale is bemused by the “barefaced cheeks” of Michael Clark dancing to the Fall on BBC2’s Whistle Test (1984). And watch a film version of the same choreography (New Puritan, 1984).
Laibach’s The State (1986), filmed performance of Laibach and Michael Clark’s No Fire Escape in Hell
Shivering Man (1987), with music by Wire’s Bruce Gilbert
Film adaptation of Heterospective, with Michael Clark and Stephen Petronio (South Bank Show, 1989)
Where to see him next
See the Michael Clark company website for performance dates.