Clark Combines Classical and Modern Dance to Great Effect

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Various Composers, Michael Clark Company: Barbican Centre, London, 22.11.2013 (JO’D)

Dancers: Harry Alexander, Julie Cunningham, Melissa Hetherington, Oxana Panchenko, Daniel Squire, Benjamin Warbis
Choreographer: Michael Clark
Costumes: Stevie Stewart, Michael Clark, Richard Torry
Lighting Designer: Charles Atlas
Music: Scritti Politti, Public Image Ltd., New York Dolls, Sex Pistols, Pulp, Relaxed Muscle

The first dancer to appear does so from the flies. Feet pointing gracefully downwards, she descends slowly to the floor in front of a rectangle of softly glowing green. Once there, she is unhooked from her wires by a man dressed, as she is, in a short, cassock-like garment of dark blue which covers the arms to the wrist while leaving the legs and feet bare. The verticality of the dancer’s entrance is echoed in the lifts, pirouettes and jetés that she and her partner then perform.

Choreographer Michael Clark (whose company is resident at the Barbican) was famous in the 1980s as the Royal Ballet School student who went on to combine his classical training with modern dance. The classical is to be found, here, in the often ‘pulled up’, upright posture of the dancers (identically dressed in the cassocks that elongate their bodies). Although some of them might depart from it later on in twists of the torso, writhing motions of the hips, and movement of the body that has the floor as its base, the default position of a Michael Clark Company dancer would seem to be that of the figure in Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Vitruvian man’ drawing. Unless, that is, the verticality of the six dancers, and their ‘frontal’ aspect, refer to the Scottish jigs danced (according to Spanish dance critic, Roger Salas, in his ‘El País’ website blog) by the four-year old Clark in his home town of Aberdeen. In which case, it is not a question of cassocks, but of kilts.

The bodysuits they wear in the second section of this untitled work break the dancers’ bodies up, by contrast, into different sections. Chocolate-coloured at the back, at the front they are divided into bands of vanilla and fawn, with turquoise for the legs. If there is a moment in the first section when Balanchine’s patterns of lines come to mind, the reference now might be to Léonide Massine. Movement is fragmented. The dancers lie on the floor, or make their entrance at floor-level, or are dragged off the stage by another dancer. When standing, their bodies can melt, beginning at the stomach, as if there were no bones inside to hold them up. The music also changes, from Scritti Politti to the New York Dolls and the Sex Pistols. While David Bintley’s Still Life at the Penguin Café (recently performed at Sadler’s Wells by the Birmingham Royal Ballet) is the 1980s in aspic, as it were, Michael Clark uses the products of that era in a contemporary work.

The final section of the piece involves too many elements: music, film, text, two stage hands blinding the audience by reflecting light around the auditorium. Among all this, though, there are still the dancers. To an extent, this section returns them to the vertical. One of the men rises on pointe, an example of the classical applied to the modern (though pointe shoes were worn by men in the past). Although the floor still provides the basis for some of the acrobatic movement, in the orange-red bodysuits they now wear the dancers are often as upright, forward-facing and unbending as skittles.

John O’Dwyer

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