You can take the boy out of ballet school, but you can’t take the ballet school out of the boy. At least, not when that boy is Michael Clark. For though his career has travelled far along an almost mythic arc – the 1980s Royal Ballet School renegade, the Icarean artist flying towards the sun, the damaged man who fell to earth, the post-rehab return from the wilderness, aided and abetted by helpers from the BritArt movement – his choreography has always, always borne the stamp of the classroom. In every piece you sense the proximity of the technique class and the conditioning studio: in the balletic steps, adagio promenades, neat tendus and elongated extensions; in the Cunningham style, with its tilts and torsions, its formal spatial logics; in the rock-solid floorwork, reminiscent of the planks and core-conditioning of Pilates or the splayed stretches of the floor-barre; and in the leotards that, however cut or coloured or otherwise adorned, always expose the mechanical workings of bone, balance and musculature.
Those elements, together with his frequent recycling of his own work and his repeated returns to particular kinds (and sometimes pieces) of music, make for a very distinctive personal style which, along with his mythic persona, can be reason enough to go and see whatever he has to offer. But whether those ingredients gel into something of substance is a different matter. Take the opening work on this programme, Satie Studs/Ogives Composite. In characteristic Clark fashion, it revisits an earlier work (Satie Stud, 2003) and extends the choreography along the same lines, here using additional piano music by Erik Satie (the four Ogives, from 1889).
Satie suits Clark very well. Like Clark, he often created series of pieces that are essentially different treatments of the same idea – in the case of the Ogives, the sounding of slow, stately phrases first as plaintive solo lines, then as grandstanding chordal progressions. Clark’s Satie Studs/Ogives Composite is as elegantly simple, but the results are far less substantial. There’s certainly a fascination with the sparse deliberation of its moves. Each section is built around distinct sets of careful balances, semaphore arm positions and successions of torques and leans, all dressed in stark black and white. The dancers process about the stage in parallel or contrapuntal motion, as solemn as Satie’s chord progressions. In the final section, Satie’s Ogives are sounded simultaneously, producing a composite that is both clashingly dissonant yet all of a piece. Clark echoes the musical idea by having all of his choreographic material play simultaneously on stage – and though you see the thoughtfulness and the potential for development, the effect is like a classroom study, dry as an exercise book. The piece hasn’t yet come off the page.
it feels good – a little racy, a little down and dirty
There’s more life in Land, to three songs by Patti Smith. Against Charles Atlas’s disarmingly low-tech digital video (think animated ASCII art, using just the digits) the dancers, in sleek bell-bottom pants, skitter about in sparky, splintering encounters. There’s a central duo – Harry Alexander in black vest, Jordan James Bridge in white – but they’re only fleetingly together, constantly split up or distracted by other entanglements: an upended lift, a cantilevered trio. The piece leaves little lasting impression, and like the Satie work seems underdone; but it feels good – a little racy, a little down and dirty.
The final part of the evening is to music by David Bowie, starting with his farewell Blackstar. In to my mother, my dog and CLOWNS (the line is from Bowie’s Life on Mars), the dancers appear in sheer-sheen leotards, moving like phalanxes of space storks, all limbs and wings in flapping, leggy formations. Veteran Clark dancer Kate Coyne makes a cameo appearance, traversing a long diagonal like a passing particle, and Clark too appears, orbiting towards the gravitational pull of centre stage, where he lays himself down to rest – “at the centre of it all”, as the song says. Yet Bowie’s song – so recent in the memory, with such a vivid video and so soon after Bowie’s death – overpowers the piece. A tribute it may have been, but my gut reacted against the vision of Clark’s latest work laid atop Bowie’s last one.
Much the best piece is the closing number, Clark’s version of Aladdin Sane – a years-old revival that itself contains cuttings from earlier pieces. The performers look like flames in their cocktail-orange leotards, Oxana Panchenko spasms on the floor like a cracked actor, squadrons of backing dancers ride the insistent drive of the bass guitar, and Mike Garson’s crazy pianism – all splatters and crashes – saturates the stage. It’s Clark all over, with its steps and sounds and costumes and colours – plus that extra something that they just can’t teach you in school.