Is the stage a theatre? If it’s treated as one. But not all choreographers do. Before a piece get to the stage it has usually been through a studio, and some like to run with that behind-the-scenes, backstage feel, for example by costuming the dancers in versions of practice clothes, or avoiding such overtly “theatrical” trappings as plot, character and drama. What I like about this look – epitomised in the work of George Balanchine and Merce Cunningham – is that we get to see, first and foremost, what the dancers are doing rather than what they are representing.
Michael Clark’s choreography bears the direct imprint of Balanchine and Cunningham in its balletic base and spare, pared-back style. The first half of Clark’s new work, called simply New Work 2012, takes a step further from the theatre stage: past the rehearsal studio and back into the dance class. His six technically top-notch performers all have the lean musculature, clean lines and elongated limbs of advanced-class dancers and the internalised, “classroom” focus of people concentrating on steps and sequences. Their costumes are neutral black, but stylishly cut, and the choreography is clearly built on ballet steps: taut tendus, precise pliés, ronds de jambe, battements both large and small, arms curved to complement a stance or stretched to extend it. The patterns echo classroom formations: synchronised groups, strong diagonals, sequences that repeat in different directions or move (as classroom jargon has it) “across the floor”. There’s more to it than just that, for Clark – always attracted by rebellion as much rigour – loves distending the formal style with kinks and warps: a skewed hip, a tilt that teeters without toppling, a jutting-out butt. The first dancer, statuesque Harry Alexander, enters from above on a pulley-rope, like a mannequin winched down to earth; and Clark himself puts in a mischievous appearance in a brief duet, making air-quotes and photo-frames with his fingers.
For all that, this opening section feels mostly like exercises, with sparks of brilliance that fail to ignite. Even the more convoluted, dislocated sequences, with dancers contorting on the ground, have the technical feel of floor-barre exercises. The floaty art-pop music of Scritti Politti certainly lifts the piece, wafting over the stage and leaving confetti trails of fey vocals and peppy beats – a lyric counterbalance to the mannequin manoeuvres of the dancers – but it is only in the final sequence that choreography at last gels into something greater than its parts, the dancers’ sidesteps and semaphore arms slotting into the musical rhythm as they form a shifty crystal of radiant lines, like some cosmic symbol formed of flesh.
After the interval, the programme shifts up a gear. The dancers are still in superhuman, balletbot mode – their drilled look, stretched arms and high kicks faintly reminiscent of squadrons, salutes and goose-steps – but now they appear in iridescent unitards, coloured like tequila sunrises, and as cool (Clark always did tread the fine line between fashion and fascism with some panache). The music, by Relaxed Muscle (Jarvis Cocker and Jason Buckle), is assaultive, a wave of thrashing sound and growling vocals that floods the auditorium. Then the gear shifts again: the stage darkens, the sound lowers, and words flit across the back screen – why, thinking, you, about, who, zoo – in and out of order, upside down, back to front. The same thing is happening with the choreographic mechanics: dancers lying down and backing out, with stuttering arms, wheelbarrow ambulations, cantilevered lifts.
Another gear change. A curtain rises at the back, revealing the band who have been playing live all the while, and the dancers reappear in black and silver leotards – part mirror, part black hole. Carrying mirrored stools, they form a line-up like a snapshot sequence from a robotic cabaret act: drape body over stool, hold it as shield, splay legs sideways, frottage it furtively. The gear shifts up one last time when Jarvis Cocker comes to the fore, in the spindly, demoniac figure of his alter ego “Darren Spooner”, wearing a skeleton T-shirt, a Freddy Kruger coat and hat, and a green zombie mask straight out of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. He’s growling and bawling at the crowd, and he totally upstages both dancers and choreography. The performance becomes a rock gig with backing dancers, to the delight of many in the audience (though I hankered for the dancers to front the act, and earplugs). All in all, it was a rocky road, but I had certainly clocked Clark’s multiple, audacious and often discordant treatments of the stage as studio, as classroom, as catwalk, as concert.