Rebel, Rebel

Controversial choreographer Michael Clark has reinvented just about every aspect of ballet. hears his take on the freedom of creativity

Michael Clark. All photos credit: Jake Walters

Michael Clark. All photos credit: Jake Walters

Michael Clark is a bit late: “sorry! I’m a little bit flustered – I had loads of stuff to do because it’s our last day before we go on tour again.”

It is understandable, he is a busy person. Having always just about exceeded the simple term ‘ballet dancer’ even at one of the top training institutions in the world, The Royal Ballet School’s unconventional graduate has been performing and choreographing for Michael Clark and Company since 1984, producing a range of works, from solo performances to collaborations with artists, fashion designers, and musicians. Given, as well, his media portrayal as ‘the bad boy of ballet’, a little lateness was the least I expected. More often than not writers have married Clark’s topless Hitler-moustached dance, or his dancing toilet, with his wild lifestyle offstage (almost as famous as his work is his battle with heroin addiction). Thus I await a conversation with the notorious rebel, and I’m not quite sure how this is going to play out.

But if it was severity I was waiting for, I’d have been waiting a long time. His soft Scottish twang betrays nothing of his reputation as, laughing, he dreads the long flight to Melbourne, Australia for his next performance. “I leave on Sunday and I get there on Tuesday! It is quite a big time difference, so it’s probably only like a day and a half, but can you imagine? I’m not very good being trapped on a plane.”

This challenge equally befalls him in a phone interview, where he grapples with words that seem to harness his boundless energy. For someone that formerly expresses themselves through movement, and has done since first joining his sister’s dance class, remaining stationary in a confined space for any time period – be it one hour or 48 – is a challenge to say the least. Still, as he begins to explain his latest project (a summer-long rehearsal with 80 untrained dancers in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall) his mind wanders, and he follows its trail instinctively: “The more I thought about it, the more I thought this is kind of silly: it’s not a theatre, why not try and embrace the nature of the building more, and do something …” he falters, buzzing with thought, “not non-theatrical because, I can’t really help myself. I’m doing something theatrical but to, um… the scale of it is huge!”

He continues in the same way to think aloud, and it seems that despite the self-professed “insanity” Clark has experienced in his private life, his rebellious nature is more an eager desire to test the limits of expression than actively going against the grain. Indeed, his foundation is in classical ballet – something, he insists, is absolutely indispensable for any dancer, no matter how abstract the dance or show (“it’s basic things like standing correctly and being able to stand on one leg”). Pulling themselves across the stage, hips first, head last, and bouncing into a pirouette, his choreography is by no means easy-going for the dancer, and Clark is keen to emphasize the extent to which his more traditional training feeds into this.

“I think a classical foundation is very useful for me because it is something that I understand and it’s the foundation of what I do really. When I went to the Royal Ballet School I didn’t know anything about ballet but I was kind of hungry for that knowledge. Anthony Dell was a dancer then, and Ashton was still alive making work. Some of those pieces are so pure, and there’s nothing extra from one place to the next. I guess that’s something I would aspire to as a choreographer. Certainly then as a dancer, to do something so perfectly formed – you know what it’s like, a piece of music that strikes a chord with you. I didn’t mean to study it long, I meant to go to Scotland after a year, but I kept finding something else that I wanted to find out more about.”

Eventually it was pop culture that caught his fancy and he could not hold solely upon the art itself. He began to experiment with merging the traditional and the modern. Clark is very matter of fact about this being a logical progression, and sees this ‘rebellion’ as simply exploring other aspects of the creative field: “The first show I put on I worked with BodyMap [fashion designer], and it was kind of a reaction to what it had been before, which was very stripped down. You went to only look at the dance, with people generally wearing practice clothes, and I thought: it’s just denying the whole visual art, why not embrace that?

“I think it’s great that I’ve got a lot of freedom, and I get this movement. I hate having to behave,” he insists, in a genuine tone of misunderstanding as to why one would have to behave.

“Fortunately I’ve been able to embrace different aspects of things in the work that I do, like working with Malcolm [Garrett, graphic designer]. Also, fashion: when I started doing work I’d go to clubs a lot, and for a lot of people I saw and met in those situations, their only means of expression was how they dress.”

Dancer Benjamin Warbis, a member of Michael Clark and Company

This was a radical venture though, and almost pushed the media focus to the opposite end of the spectrum. “In the early days some critics could only seem to write about all the extraneous stuff: the costumes, the music… they didn’t talk about the dance at all.” Not that this is something he resents. In retrospect – refreshingly aware of his own eccentricity – he even sympathises: “I think it was probably hard to see, they might have been slightly overwhelmed. It felt like that inside it too. That was the good thing with the bare bums. Just to have your bum out felt so… challenging. It’s not something that one does, you know, to jump around… it’s kind of like you dare yourself to do these things. For some reason, I don’t know why.” He sighs in a sort of motherly tutting to his bare-bummed self, but there’s a quiet sense of achievement in his voice as he pans back over the years.

“Things have changed quite a bit since I’ve started making work. There’s a different audience for dance, certainly for my dance. There’s quite a broad spectrum of people that come to see what I do, which is great I think. I mean, it wasn’t conscious that I did that but it was just stuff that interested me. A broader appeal, I guess.”

Much of the broad appeal undoubtedly comes from his fusion between ballet, and popular punk icons, such as Marc Bolan, Iggy Pop, and David Bowie – with whom he has often collaborated – taking inspiration from their music, and further their styles of movement, and image.

“Iggy Pop was a performer, and it’s something that I try and achieve with my dancers. It’s very, very hard for a trained dancer to just throw himself around like that, like a petulant child – doing things that are really, well, painful. Then again you’ve got Bowie who’s much more self conscious, and I love postures that people strike! Like Bowie, almost everything he does he’s so aware of: what he’s doing with his body, and his musicality. Marc Bolan’s another one who does that as well.

“I guess those are people who I listened to from the age of ten or something. But I didn’t understand that I wanted to be part of whatever it was that they were a part of. For me it was hard listening to Bowie then. It was a bit like Stravinsky later on: something I really wanted to understand, but it took a lot of effort. That sounds strange with pop music. I wanted to get them, but I wasn’t feeling it initially.”

But this obstacle merely dissolved into another challenge to be overcome. “It’s interesting: the stuff that I’ve used, is very descriptive – it’s quite graphic – and it’s hard not to describe visually what he’s describing in words. You have a kind of dialogue with the music and the lyrics. You go with them sometimes, or you might do the opposite. I like playing with that aspect.

“I do this thing where I choreograph something completely different to the music and then I change the music and it just colours the whole thing so differently. It’s an interesting thing to do because emotionally it becomes something completely different, it’s quite strange.”

Is this a calculated construction, or accidental? “It’s quite annoying for me, being me, because I always seem to choose the counter-intuitive choices, over the predictable ones, you know what I mean? You know, how unpredictable can you be? And it gets a bit annoying after a while. For my dancers I try not to make it laborious – it is laborious though! I do take ages to make decisions, but I try and do as much work as I can on my own. But I am physically restricted because I’m getting older, and the space I’m working in is quite tiny compared to the Turbine Hall. Then again, in the Turbine Hall in front of all those people, I couldn’t do those things you can do privately when you try something out that could go wrong. I believe that when you’re told nothing’s new, I disagree. I think that one can do things that you probably haven’t seen before, and that’s one of the things that I’m excited about, the possibility of discovering something.”

I ask to what extent he reinvents his own work in trying to do this, which earns a chuckle. “I get accused of doing that all the time. It’s hard. For example, with something like the Chosen Maiden solo in the ‘Rite of Spring’, I worked so slowly on it because I didn’t want to see anything that I’d seen before, and that was very important to me. But now, having done that, it becomes part of your body, it’s like a different language, and it becomes part of your vocabulary and it’s like why shouldn’t I use it? It’s my vocabulary. And yes, there are references to other things and to be self referential is kind of dangerous too, but you develop a language and it becomes the way that you speak and it’s like the parallels with language and words. It’s the same with the body, I think.”

Demonstrative of this idea, he subsequently finds it difficult to put into words such bodily vocabulary, settling instead for a description of the visual. “My birthday is 2/6/62, and I’m not saying there’s anything in these things, but I do have a fascination with duality and opposites. To hold up mirrors by craftwork, a bit like reflection. Like, I try and work against symmetry in my dances.” There is a pause, and a slight hesitation, before he reluctantly realises that “I guess it’s a modernist approach, to be asymmetrical, but I suppose I can’t help that.”

Just to have your bum out felt so … challenging. You dare yourself to do these things. I don’t know why

His aversion to definitions, particularly in reference to his own work, is apparent throughout the interview. Clark continually interrupts himself as he thinks of a contradiction to his own points, never resting on one certain idea. As he says he does with his choreography, he always takes the alternative approach to a conversation topic.

“I was just reading something on the way home about the way people define classicism. It’s so different from one field to another. This guy was saying that anything with order is classicism. I think I agree with that.” However, he sounds thoughtful, as if ready for his mind to offer up the flipside of the argument.

“Language fascinates me because it can be so specific and dance just isn’t like that. Things can have a definite meaning in words, but they don’t in dance.

“A lot of people in the audience will see a relationship with something, and you can’t avoid that really – other human beings and how they relate to each other. It’s not an abstract thing really, is it?”

Dancer Oxana Panchenko

Having now touched upon the topic, I ask about the relationship, whether direct or actively avoided, between the expression in his choreography and his own private life. Despite a slight sigh, Clark does not shy away from “that whole area”, and, as ever, it is something that simultaneously repels him and intrigues him.

“It’s a confessional aspect of art like that which makes me a bit queasy. But then again, I quite like doing things like that. The discomfort aspect, I mean, with the literal. Like, there’s a dance to ‘Heroin’ by the Velvet Underground in one of the shows and of course people see that seriously and say, ‘oh, he has a problem with heroin’, and, God, I’m fully aware of that. It’s a manipulative thing really. So, yes, it’s very hard not to be knowing at times, but I don’t want everything to be in quotation marks. I do sincere things that some people think ‘he’s not really going to mean that’, but …” he fades into internal debate with himself, conclusively resolving, “truth is such a weird thing.”

He flicks off the topic energetically, not with a sense of masking anything, but simply boredom of the dragged out tale. Instead, he moves on to sharing the new phenomenon that has befallen him: the restrictions age is placing on his body.

“I think it’s an ongoing challenge to be able to articulate what it is that I want to achieve, because it’s much easier to show somebody something. That’s the way I’ve always done things: if I can do it, then they can do it.”

But with time comes limitations, and Clark is fully aware that he is no longer at the peak of his physicality. “There are a lot of people in dance that don’t believe me that human beings are evolving before our eyes. I have a 19-year-old who’s just joined the company called Harry. He’s got loads of potential, it’s great. Already in my lifetime there are dancers much more capable than way back. But I guess people ask much more of themselves.

“It does mean that I’ve had to develop new skills to articulate what it is that I want. So on a good day it’s exciting, it’s challenging!”

Clear definitive articulation, however, is not how Clark works, nor is realistic targets. He spirals off into a description of his fantasy project (“I’d love to choreograph a funfair ride, because I know they won’t let me do it, but I’d love to have a theatre which is like a fantasy land”) and it’s clear that, as he has never followed the rules, he is certainly not going to let bodily restrictions make him do so.

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