The Many Face(t)s of Michael Clark
The Cosmic Dancer retrospective on Scottish choreographer and dancer Michael Clark explores his screen, set, and stage collaboration with fellow artists.
On ViewBarbican Art Gallery
October 7, 2020 – January 3, 2021
Summed up in the iconic image of his bleached mohawk and skull-adorned t-shirt pulled over a white tutu, Michael Clark is synonymous with colorful, drug-filled, punk-fantasy ballets. His varied and energetic choreographies and performances have always flirted with those of the American punk ballerina Karole Armitage. Having danced with her in New York for six months in 1982, nothing could have removed him further from the almost tame, contact-improvisation-inflected movements of his counter-cultural contemporaries and advocates of the so-called New Dance in London. At the tender age of 22, Clark starred in his first fictional documentary Hail the New Puritan (1986) filmed for Channel 4 by media-dance pioneer (and Clark’s future lighting designer) Charles Atlas. A few years later, his mother Bessie re-birthed her son live onstage, in a warehouse in King’s Cross in London, with the help of midwife and fellow costume designer Leigh Bowery to T. Rex’s iconic “Cosmic Dancer” lyrics “I danced myself right out the womb” in Mmm… (1992).
Four decades of dominating screens and stages later, the Scottish dancer and choreographer has stepped off the proscenium, for now, and into the gallery with his Cosmic Dancer exhibition at the Barbican Centre in London. Stretching over two floors in the main exhibition space, Clark’s first retrospective brings together provocative costumes and set design, music and video installations, performance and rehearsal photographs, archival materials, and newly commissioned work. With little intervention from Clark, the anticipated result is a multi-faceted celebration of his 15th anniversary as a Barbican Artistic Associate through the eyes of his fellow artists and collaborators. While their eulogizing texts in the exhibition catalogue allude to a potential memorialization, this retrospective is one of the largest of its kind dedicated to a living dancer or choreographer to date.
Introducing this elusive choreographer and dance prodigy with the sickly-sweet smile and the soft-spoken voice is by no means a quiet affair: on entry, waves of pounding music blast from loudspeakers and flashes of colorful ballet fantasies populate screens. Charles Atlas’s A Prune Twin (2020) spans nine hanging screens and four monitors in the lower galleries and is a suitable epigraph to the exhibition. The screens present an incongruous, fictional anti-documentary of a day in the life of a juvenile Michael Clark, during which he charms the imaginary journalist, and exhibition audience, with his cheeky confessions of “sniffing glue at midnight” as a boarder at the Royal Ballet School in Richmond, London. Reshuffling two of Atlas’s previous films—Hail the New Puritan (1986) and Because We Must (1989)—it is one of the newly commissioned works for the exhibition and presented in the more recent style of Atlas’s media-dance installations.
Clark created his first set designs for the video I Am Curious, Orange (1988), which doubles as his most significant collaboration with the post-punk band The Fall. Commissioned to commemorate the coronation anniversary of the Dutch-born William of Orange as King of England, this collaboration draws on the shared historical and political interest between the band and Clark. The outcome: a flashy take on Thatcherism, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and colonialism. The Fall performs onstage in front of a superimposed Parliament Square, while the dancers parade on and around oversized props of fast food: an enormous Big Mac rolls onstage; a giant portion of french fries falls from the ceiling. Another scene shows dancers in sculptural orange fruit costumes, while in a third scene, dancers perform a soccer match with the ball cleverly attached to their pointe shoes. The exhibition juxtaposes these archival films from Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London with a re-creation of Clark’s fast food set design; two music videos by Cerith Wyn Evans filmed on-set for The Fall; and a cartoon-like still life with fried eggs, lemons, and underpants by Trojan, a self-proclaimed “artist and prostitute.”
The upper galleries attempt a quieter introduction to Clark through the more traditional genre of portraiture, although the motionless nature of these works inadequately embodies the enthusiasm, energy, and ebullience of the dancing body and risks a reduction to mere props. Peter Doig’s Portrait (Corbusier) (2009) from the set for come, been and gone (2009) fuses Clark’s facial features with those of Le Corbusier wearing his distinctive black glasses. Painter Elizabeth Peyton attempts an ancestral hall with Clark’s heroes Yvonne Rainer, Pauline Daly, and John Lydon—a stark contrast to the hollow husks of ornately decorated, provocative costumes by Leigh Bowery and BodyMap, some of which show bare buttocks, on the adjacent walls. Sarah Lucas’s headless sculpture Cnut (2004), a concrete cast of Clark’s body sitting on a toilet seat and smoking a cigarette, rests on a ham sandwich. Wolfgang Tillmans’s serene selection of photographs offers intimate glimpses of the company during rehearsals, performances, and on other occasions, worlds away from the highly staged promotional portraits for performances.
Duncan Campbell’s film It for Others (2013) and Silke Otto-Knapp’s ten newly commissioned watercolor paintings in the last two opposing rooms are perhaps the most intriguing portraits in the exhibition. Drawing on Clark’s dance training in the Cecchetti method at the Royal Ballet School and a more contemporary style at Ballet Rambert in London, both artists sought to portray Clark’s unique movement technique and interpretation of the two diverging dancing methods in their works. Campbell’s video sequence shows a series of abstract choreographic forms, danced diagrams from Karl Marx’s Das Kapital (1867). Performed by the Michael Clark Company in black costumes against a white background, these sequences highlight the rigor and formalistic approach of the Cecchetti method as well as its grounding in routine, balance, and the alternation of set exercises. While the film has no musical score, Clark chose to play Daft Punk to animate the dancers. Further along the catwalk, Otto-Knapp’s paintings depict and blend group formations from Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Noces (1923) and Clark’s I Do (2007). Having participated in Clark’s residency with non-professional dancers at Tate Modern in 2010, she particularly remembered the varied use of synchronized arm gestures—most certainly another detail of the Cecchetti method, which emphasizes the flowing of arms in eight different port de bras in its repertoire.
Like its subject, the exhibition honors traditional genres—ballet, portraiture—as it transgresses their boundaries. Another strength is Cosmic Dancer’s wealth of archival materials—from rare, early recordings of Clark’s solos Soda Lake (1981) and Dutiful Ducks (1981) for Richard Alston at Ballet Rambert, to TV appearances and previously unseen footage of Clark’s choreography for Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse in Marseille from 2008. Overall, the promised portrayal of the Scottish dancer and choreographer across media and practices succeeds, forming a well-rounded and lively celebration of Clark.
The exhibition is set to travel next to Clark’s native Scotland and show at the V&A in Dundee.