Tuesday, 8 June 2010
Michael Clark: come, been and gone
In the 1980's Michael Clark was lazily christened the enfant terrible of British dance. To the pounding post-punk rhythms of The Fall (who the late, disc jockey, John Peel pithily described as "always different, always the same"), the Scottish dancer, Michael Clark, and his embryonic company flashed their bums to the dance establishment. Their work was subversive, jettisoning the cliché-ridden forms and styles of what was commonly accepted as canonically "proper". Yet this was far from being an act of iconoclasm. Clark had trained at the Royal Ballet School which provided a technical seed bed for many of his future ideas and experiments. "Classicism is definitely part of my vocabulary," Clark admitted in a recent interview, "I was trained very well by Richard Glasstone at the Royal Ballet School, in a way that made absolute physical sense to me. I think maybe at one point in my teens I tried to reject that, but it's really just a part of the way I think and move, the notion of "line" being a continuous thread through a phrase of movement." Far from wanting to repudiate the tradition, Clark sought to revitalise it and allow it to express personal and contemporary concerns. In dance terms, this was to be his hermeneutic of continuity.
Michael Clark has returned to London this week with a new piece entitled, come, been and gone. The familiar hallmarks are stamped all over the work. The Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop and David Bowie provide a soundtrack that's all swaggering glam and delirium tremens. The production achieves a visual coherence with costumes, video and paintings by Peter Doig finding an emotional synchronicity with the movement of the dancers. There are ludic intervals whith bare faced buttock cheeks and the striking of pantomime attitudes. Yet, it is in the bold and surprising geometries of Clark's choreography that we witness an attempt to retrieve the beautiful from the futile and prosaic.
Modern man is alienated from his body. The body has become a thing or object and the real me exists elsewhere. There is a disconnect between body and soul or body and mind. It's common to hear people talk about not being comfortable in their skins as if our skins, our bodies, were add ons to who we are. In part, this notion has arisen due to the widespread influence of the philosopher, René Descartes and his cogito, ergo sum (I think therefore I am) proposition. "The Cartesian picture," writes Roger Scruton, "tempts us to believe that we go through life dragging an animal on a lead, forcing it to do our bidding until, at the last, it collapses and dies. I am a subject; my body an object: I am I, it is it." In his work, Michael Clark rebels against this philosophical hegemony and seeks to overthrow it.
There is a real sense that his company are not just bodies in movement but that they are acting as embodied persons. As a dancer, with steely concentration, balances on one leg and slowly pivots round, you sense that they are not only earthed to the floor but that they are earthed to the reality of themselves. The explosive jump, jig and torque cannot be reduced to involuntary or mechanical actions of the body, but articulate the truth that the human person is a unity. In the dance, all destructive dualisms are erased and we experience a true freedom.
One cannot look at bodies so lithe, strong and youthful and not experience some erotic charge. Yet, for all its sensual static, this performance does not allow the audience to become pornographers, desiring the body as an instrument of arousal. Through the grace and sustained poise of the dancers, we are invited to venerate embodied persons. It is not enough to admire the discipline, stamina and technique of the dancers, what we long for is to actualise in ourselves the dancers' creative presentation of what it means to be a person. Through them, we see ourselves in full flight. In this way, the desires of the viewer are simultaneously chastened and liberated. In fact, the dancers veil their bodies (literally, in the case of one section of come, been and gone)through their movements so that the observer's desires are sublimated and purified of any sullying passions. This is what distinguishes the art of come, been and gone from the sleazy gyrations of some lap dancing club.
come, been and gone is more informed by constraint than by rock 'n' roll wildness. As the dancers walk forward with their backs arched backwards, their arms rigid timbers, you sense a Protestant commitment to the intensity of the movement. The angular silhouettes and physical tics expressed in cleanly etched lines become revelations of sublime beauty. Dancers moving together with military precision and then subverting conventional movement to create some origami effect with their limbs keeps the audience en pointe.
come, been and gone is not without indulgent moments. Kate Coyne dressed in a costume perforated with syringes and dancing to the Velvet Underground's Heroin was one such moment. But such lapses are outweighed by the youthful playfulness and beauty of come, been and gone that, once again, shows Michael Clark to be "always different, always the same."