Michael Clark, Whitney Biennial, New York

The young Michael Clark was that rare thing: a punk ballerino, sporting mohawk and tutu together. When he danced to The Fall, he messed not only with ballet proprieties but also with the beat, sidling up to its thwacking inevitability with kittenish grace. So who wouldn’t want to adore him into his middle age, via the less extravagantly gorgeous dancers for whom he now choreographs? Unfortunately Who’s Zoo? (until Sunday) – version 2.0 of his venture last year for Tate Modern’s vast Turbine Hall – did not give us much occasion.

Sunk in long-time lighting designer Charles Atlas’s murk, the floor patterns made little of the surrounding architecture: the extreme length and high ceilings of the Whitney’s fourth floor. If you looked to the right you missed the action on the left; the solution was to stare straight ahead at whatever might come at you.

The six excellent dancers assumed basic Cunningham forms with apt impassivity – the X of a Vitruvian Man tilted on his axis, the O of a torso curved by force of a scalloping arm – embellishing the pure, plain steps with occasional hip swivels, shoulder rolls and geometric entanglements on the floor.

As a dancer, Clark brought an insouciance to his steps that mocked the music’s nihilistic pronouncements, but when other dancers tried to cop an attitude they just looked frantic or sloppy. Now – set to Jarvis Cocker’s dank, defeated musings – they looked beautiful. The choreography between the cracks – the joinery between music and movement, dance and the space, one section and another – still does not permit them anything more.

At one point, 49 civilians amassed on stage to perform simple gestures before assembling in rows for the Clark dancers to glide between. Even regimented, these recruits seemed individual. And as they stampeded towards an exit, the slap of their feet suggested a joyful wilfulness that Who’s Zoo? otherwise lacked.

But whatever the work’s flaws, it is wonderful to encounter dance at the museum, which for so long welcomed only the self-denying, “no to spectacle” aspect of the idiom, even as the art it exhibited grew increasingly theatrical. Dance benefits from this setting. With all those objects nearby, it feels more alive and necessary than ever.

www.whitney.org

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