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."


  1. This is brilliant! I am so glad that you are into dance too. Some people do not realise that Dance is also such a brilliant form of theatre. I used to work in Saddlers Wells. I missed my vocation as a dancer whilst struggling to survive life and living.

    The word Grace as well as in religion is prevalent in dance, (but not as in the shallowness of graceful or floaty arms and posture, like so many think). The Grace that I know of in ballet especially, but also in other forms of dance, is in being (like religion) physical masters of weightlessness. Being so effortlessly disciplined and finely tuned with our bodies that as instruments they can appear to actually levitate and leave behind the physical realms and trappings of an earthly existence, to transcend and become momentarily of spirit.

    Can I just remind the peeps following your blog that for £15.00 you can sit very high up in The Royal Opera House Covent Garden and spend some of the most enlightening hours outside of prayer :O)

  2. I loved this posting...au point about the en pointe.

    I'm particularly struck by your phrasing that we might 'venerate' the human body. I like this very much indeed. The human body IS beautiful, miraculous and continually communicative. It's cheapened by censure as much as it is by pornography.

    What many of us have lost is an understanding of what veneration means. It's one of the things we might learn through worship. But only a worship which is not ashamed of the human body.

  3. I have a confession. I can't remember the last time that I went to see dance performance and maybe this was why I was so taken by Come, Been and Gone. Perhaps, if I had been going to dance performances for years on end, I would have been less impressed by Michael Clarke. Anyway, I was impressed and excited. I know next to nothing about dance, although I do cast an eye across dance reviews in the newspaper and The Tablet - just to get a sense of what is going on in this sensual world at the periphery of my cultural vision. It's hard to pinpoint why dance has never become part of my vocabulary: (i) poor, working class background where the idea of going to the Royal Opera House, etc was socially and financially beyond my imagining (ii) a bad experience as a teenager with the ballet Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Festival hall which I hated (iii) can't remember any school trips to dance, whereas there were to the theatre and that kickstarted the beginning of my love of theatre...anyway, now I know I can sit up in the Gods at the ROH for a minimal sum. My dance education may well begin!

    Richard, your point that the embodied person is "cheapened by censure as much as it is by pornography" is, of course, absolutely right. Running parallel with the degradation of the body in pornography has been the body as something to be despised, ashamed of - although I think philosophically these views are not very far apart. However, I'm not sure that I would want to "worship" the embodied person...that would be to turn him or her (oh, and here questions about the meaning of gender arise, the specific forms of the embodied perosn - yikes!) into a false idol. Not surprisingly, I think the embodied person points to who we should be worshipping. But for the purpose of my blog post I was using the concept of veneration in its widest sense, one which I believe non-believers and believers might be able to agree upon.

    Oh, yes, Mags thanks for the card!
    Oh, yes, Richard thanks for getting the tickets!

  4. Penance for your confession, 10 plies’, 10 arabesques and then an hour at the barre! Its brilliant that you have challenged the festival hall experience, a whole new world to be discovered!

    It is such a shame and inequality that being working class can deprive people of The Arts, especially when we are not encouraged to follow our aspirations. It is rotten that for some the necessity and deviation of struggling to survive has to take priority.

    That’s why I Love the story of Billy Elliot and his triumph over class. This show should be taken out of the theatre and taken around schools where children may learn that aspirations are to be exulted. Often amateur dance companies are a great alternative and affordable.

    When it comes to the human body, I believe that if we are fully present/embodied as God intended us to be, then without shame or fear we can fully embrace with Grace the beauty of our own, as well as others sensual selves, in the wholesome triune of physical form, being and spirit as one.

    Then who else could we venerate but only God.

  5. Hi Martin - this is quite a thought provoking blog.

    You said 'I'm not sure that I would want to "worship" the embodied person'.

    But christians do worship an embodied person, and catholic worship centres on a human body - one taken, broken, transformed and shared. And in encountering that body encounter God. I feel you're still holding open a gap between the divine and the carnal which no longer exists - at least for God.

    This dialogue has also got me thinking about what the old Anglican marriage service contained in the vows the groom made to the bride. He said 'with my body I thee worship'...

    It prompting me to consider how profoundly incarnated the christian mystery is...so that worship incorporates all the things we've been talking about - admiration, awe, respect, the arousal of the senses, a desire for intimate union. Ordinary and carnal human experiences are not so much sublimated or transcended so much as transformed and given much greater meaning. They become capable of carrying other dimensions of experience too - divine experience.

    It also got me wondering - is this how God feels about creation? Is our response to beautiful, free and gracious human bodies mirrored by God?

  6. Richard, In the C of E church I remember the vows to say "with my body I honour you, and all that I am, I give to you"

    And in this context honour and worship are completely different.

    This is where the real issues lie. Us In the likeness of God, reflected by us In the likeness of God, often falling short. And therefore in truth we recieve a falling short reflection beacuse we are fallible humans.

    But in truth capable yes of the carnal us transformed by Grace into devine experience. But only if we worship God and are in intimate relationship with Him.

  7. My point is that if and falesly when we just worship each other (the embodied form) where we are purely carnal, and that carnal worship is/was outside of a shared devine relationship with God, the transforming of ones experience into that of devine and spiritual experience/dimension will never be realised.

    This leaves me slightly confused because children (which I believed to be devine blessing) can be produced not just from blessed relationships but also one night stands/rape/fetility treatment as well as other relationships.

    I do however believe that the transforming of intimate experience between two people both in devine relationship with christ as well as eachother is a part of the mystery of worship that some outside of faith will never experience.

  8. I think all the lively comments above indicate how important our understanding of the body is and how difficult it can be to have a right understanding. I think what we all agree on is that the body is more than just a thing or appendage to the self. What we do with our bodies touches the soul of who we are.

    The points Richard and Mags make raise big theological issues - far too big for a blog comment like this. But just a couple of points

    (i) Do Christians worship an embodied person or an Incarnate God? I think this difference could be important.

    (ii) Do we - and I include myself - have to be careful about how we use the word "worship"? For example, is there a difference between saying "I'd worship a g&t", "I worship the ground you stand on" and "I worship God"? Is this use of "worship" univocal?

    Final observation. It's interesting how thinking a little more deeply about dance has, within a short space of time, led to some challenging theological discussion.

  9. Yep - this is a good 'un...

    I'm not so sure that God makes the same distinctions we do. Surely God's incarnation penetrates every aspect of human experience - so that worship opens up a certain quality of loving rather than a certain category of relating (i.e. one proper only to God)?

    On that, Mags, the Book of Common Prayer uses 'worship'. Modern anglican liturgies use 'honour' which you're right, that is what you heard. I was refering to the older version. As the reformers weren't particularly original in their material (though pretty radical in their editing!) I wouldn't be surprised if this is a direct translation from the pre-reformation rite. If it is I wonder what the latin term is...?

    While enjoying pushing this to it's limits - because it feels so thought provoking and helpful, I agree also, Martin, that it could be 'worship' is being used in different senses. A check on the latin/ greek antecedents might reveal what those nuances are. But I'm all for discovering the erotic and carnal for worship of God and recovering veneration for our relating to the bodies of others...

    dignum et justum est


  10. Not surprisingly, I have no idea what God makes of our use of distinctions. But, as a tool of reasoning, the use of distinctions is an invaluable way of thinking about things in a correct way. Richard shows their importance by making a distinction above between "a certain quality of loving" and "a certain category of relating". So, although the use of distinctions might be dismissed as a superfluous, mental exercise, I'd argue that they provide rational beings with an essential tool with which to humbly consider and speak about the natural and supernatural orders. Of course, the distinctions we use might be wrong and might be shown to be so, but I don't think that this invalidates the practice of thinking in this way. At this point, I fear I've just opened up a philosophical can of worms...

  11. Yes, I think you are right, He must penetrate all aspects of human existence, and that maybe we are only open to responding to this when we are in intimate relationship with Him. Thanks and praise for all things sublime x
    and even more so for all things God Blessed x

  12. "God's incarnation penetrates every aspect of human experience - so that worship opens up a certain quality of loving rather than a certain category of relating (i.e. one proper only to God)?"
    I am getting their but....
    Richard supposing there is No worship for some? Then my point being there is a lack of devine or spiritual quality to the Love in their just carnal category of relating. Me thinks :0)

  13. At this point I keel over from exhaustion and am no good for any form of worship carnal or spiritual or otherwise. Night Night God Bless and Sweet Dreams!

  14. In answer to your question we worship an incarnate God and not an embodied person, because if Jesus had never been resurected or appeared to others, I am sure also that He never would have been worshiped in the same way that He is today. I think I am right in believing that the Gospels were written in hind site of the resurection. He of spirit made into flesh, returned to spirit.

  15. The groundbreaking choreographer, Michael Clark and his dance company transform the Turbine Hall into a space for experimentation and practice. You'll get to witness the artistic process behind the c...horeography…AND Michael Clark is also inviting 100 members of the public to join weekly workshops, where YOU will learn a piece of choreography to be performed en-masse over the August Bank Holiday weekend in the Turbine Hall!

    Potential volunteers should email now! volunteer.clark@tate.org.uk
    See more
    Tate Modern|Music & Performance|Tate Modern Live: Michael Clark Company
    Widely considered as