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It is almost 30 years since Ellen van Schuylenburch danced a duet with Michael Clark in his 1984 work New Puritans, set to music by the post-punk band The Fall. They both wore high platform boots and costumes with a hole in the backside where their bare bottoms peeped out. Now she is special projects director at the Michael Clark Company, and while she shows me a series of performance clips, she’s telling me what it feels like to give up.
“When you can’t dance any more, you mourn,” she says. “It’s your addiction. It’s what makes you happy.”
She plays a DVD of I Am Curious, Orange, one of the high points of Clark’s early career, performed at Sadler’s Wells in 1988, and we watch as she high-kicks her way across the stage and Clark, his hair shaved into a bottle-blond Mohican, glides and spins weightlessly behind her.
These days Michael Clark rarely appears on stage except for the odd cameo part, though audiences must still hope that his 20-year-old self will come sailing from the wings. Since 2005, the has been based at the Barbican, where next week it presents Triple Bill, an extended version, with a new work added, of Double Bill, which they performed there last October.
I met Clark at the end of a day’s rehearsals, in the east London studio where he works. “The best studio in London,” he said, as we watched the City light up through the wall of glass that runs down one side. He is a slight, slender figure in sweat pants and a hoody; not tall, and no longer with that pure Pre-Raphaelite beauty that marked him out in his youth. The elfin features are more pronounced, and he still has a nappy pin inserted into his right ear.
I told him what van Schuylenburch had said about giving up dancing being a sort of mourning. “It is, yeah,” he said. “Fortunately, I’m a choreographer. But I’m not surprised there are so many alcoholic old dancers. It must be the same as sport. Some [players] said they’d rather they’d just been killed when they couldn’t play any more. It’s the endorphins … just that thing of doing every day the same thing that you really understand and you’ve mastered. It’s like meditation or something. You leave the world out there, any problems, anything, you come in and you focus on this thing. And it always seems narcissistic to other people because of the mirror and stuff but, really, it’s your tool, ultimately. You’re not doing it to show off.”
Clark, who turned 50 last year, has spent the past decade gradually putting the “beautiful boy” worship that attached to him as a dancer behind him, and concentrating on the less glamorous role of a working choreographer, albeit one with his own company, supported by the Arts Council and a group of generous patrons (many of whom come from the world of contemporary art, rather than dance). Since he reappeared at the end of the 1990s, after a period living back home in Scotland with his mother, where he’d gone to kick a heroin habit, he has been extending his repertoire, adding a new work, or a revised old one, almost every year. People tend to forget, because of his mesmerising gifts as a dancer, that he has been creating his own works ever since he left the Royal Ballet School in 1979 at 17.
He began his tenure at the Barbican with the Stravinsky Project, a three-year cycle of his own versions of three Stravinsky ballets: Apollo, The Rite of Spring and Les Noces. After that there have been two residencies at Tate Modern in 2010 and 2011, another in New York as part of last year’s Whitney Biennale and a new work for the Barrowland ballroom in Glasgow, part of the Olympic 2012 celebrations. There, as at the Tate and the Whitney, non-professional dancers were part of the performance (it’s a longstanding Clark tradition) – there was a 40-strong corps de ballet of volunteers and a group of Scottish pipers, with music by Scritti Politti, David Bowie and Pulp. Last year’s Double Bill included Jarvis Cocker’s alter-duo Relaxed Muscle (with ex-Pulp collaborator Jason Buckle), who were also at the Whitney. The New York Times described Cocker’s movements as “bewilderingly lackadaisical yet full of darting undercurrents”, and said that the only person to challenge him as far as charisma was concerned, Clark included, was Bowie, who was in the audience.
One of Clark’s major achievements has been to introduce a whole new audience to dance. They were people who probably knew more about music and fashion, art and film than they did about contemporary dance, but that was why they liked what he did. His work referenced the world outside. It embraced club culture and gender politics. Clark was openly gay. His work could be sexually extreme and he courted outrage, not always in subtle or even interesting ways. But the pieces were always challenging, and often funny, and at their core was Clark the dancer, the gifted, disciplined body that could enter the fray and execute a perfect, measured series of movements, with liquid arms and feet – to quote fellow-dancer Leslie Bryant – “that moved through space like white doves”.
The critics loved Clark the dancer. But they have been less sure about Clark the choreographer. Take last year’s Barbican Double Bill: Clement Crisp, the FT’s critic, judged it an ultimately disappointing performance of two halves. The first included “a final passage that is surely one of the best, most mature things Clark has made. It seems a summation of everything that he has understood about danced classicism, about the formal dignities of placing moving or static bodies on a stage.”
But after the interval, “Clark [was] back to the 1980s and rock’s brutish din, disjunct posturing and crass showing off… a denial of the mature talent that had given us the eloquent opening section of the evening.”
Crisp, by his own admission, is one of those who feel Clark betrayed his talent as a dancer, and should have accepted an invitation to join the Royal Ballet, where it was believed he might follow Anthony Dowell as principal. Instead, he joined Ballet Rambert, spent a summer in America working with Merce Cunningham and John Cage, and then joined Karole Armitage, an ex-Cunningham dancer who had her own company in New York. Her mix of classical ballet with punk and pop, extreme costumes and lighting, earned her the label “the punk princess”. Armitage introduced Clark to Charles Atlas, the film-maker and lighting designer, who has worked on Clark’s productions ever since.
When I asked Clark what he felt about his transition from dancer to choreographer, he said: “I think it’s still a problem. People would say they loved the dancing so much they couldn’t tell whether the choreography was good or not. I’m still trying to find ways to choreograph that don’t involve me actually doing it physically. Because I can’t do everything now. I try not to allow myself to try and do it, because I’ve kind of hurt myself.” (He has had several major knee operations.) “Sometimes it gives dancers the nerve to try it if I have a go. But I couldn’t still be dancing in my own work, no.”
Was it frustrating, teaching others what he could once do himself?
“I suppose it means I’ve failed if it’s frustrating.”
But you still dance every day?
“Yeah. Basically, I can’t let go of being physical… being a human being.”
But that’s not necessary is it?
“But it’s worth a try,” he said. “Just to see if it’s possible or not.”
This wasn’t the only time the conversation took a sudden U-turn, whenever he anticipated an answer that might appear too logical or predictable. It seemed to say something about what motivates him creatively, even about his nature, as if he instinctively wanted to challenge or reject the obvious assumptions, and looked for some sort of cognitive dissonance that would push people out of their comfort zone.
The same impetus is visible in his choreography. One of its characteristics is the containment of near-collapse; pushing a position to its tipping point, then countering it, controlling it, to create a new form. The dance critic Luke Jennings has alluded to this testing of limits. “There’s always been the screwdriver jammed in the works … ‘How far can I push this before it breaks?’ Clark wonders. ‘How much punishment can the form take?’ Perhaps it’s inevitable that, for a time at least, he should have gone down with the ship.”
The story of Clark’s early career has been told often. He grew up on a farm outside Aberdeen. At the age of four he asked if he could join his sister’s Scottish dancing classes and proved so talented that by 11 his teacher had nothing more to teach him. He won a place at the Royal Ballet School in London and arrived at 13 – two years later than most of the other students, so he had a lot of catching up to do. Despite being caught glue-sniffing in his senior year, he was given the Ursula Moreton Choreographic Award. At Ballet Rambert, he worked with the choreographer Richard Alston, who gave him his first solo roles.
Though he had been a star student, Clark said he had found performing in front of an audience terrifying.
“I was so nervous,” he told me. “I was really confident in the studio, but I was so nervous I would shake. One of the first things I did in Rambert was a solo in a Richard Alston piece and I just couldn’t do the things I could do in private, or in the studio, I was just shaking all over. It was one of the most humiliating experiences of my life. I couldn’t extend my hand because my whole hand was doing this [he holds his hand up shaking violently]. For somebody who was so in control of their body normally, to be out of control… It was my first performance and I thought after that I’d just have to do it privately, for my own satisfaction. Over time I learnt to channel it, and the people at Rambert helped me get over it.”
In 1981, Alston created a memorable solo piece for Clark, Soda Lake, which he danced at the Riverside Studios. “I think for both of us it was a very good time. Richard spoke of the dance coming from inside, and how you’d feel something. And I just looked at him like he was kind of crazy: ‘What? It comes from inside?’”
Everything Clark had been taught about classical ballet was about line. “It was all very much about the onlooker,” he said. “Even to things like, you looked this way [turning his head to one side] to the royal box. I’m not joking. I mean classical ballet comes from court dancing. It’s all about showing off your beautifully made tights. You’re wearing a cape and you’d do this with your cape… [sweeps his hand in front of him] and you’re kind of thinking, this is ridiculous, I’m not going round with a cape.”
The Riverside, in old BBC studios, was one of the few venues in London where music, theatre, film, art and dance could mix. Its then artistic director David Gothard was responsible for programming.
“Michael was this refugee,” Gothard said. “At the Riverside he was able to benefit from being given an old BBC dressing-room and a nightwatchman. He was there at the same time as [the artist] Bruce McLean and [the architect] Will Alsop. They all did a great amount of work overnight.”
Gothard made Clark resident choreographer in 1982, and in 1984 Clark launched his first company. Over the next few years he produced more than a dozen new works, collaborating with Bodymap designers David Holah and Stevie Stewart (still his costume designer), with Charles Atlas and with bands such as The Fall, Wire and Laibach, a hardcore Slovenian experimental group championed by John Peel. Clark began to introduce untrained dancers in his works, giving leading roles in particular to his close friend Leigh Bowery, a performance artist, and, on occasion, to his mother Bessie, who appeared bare-breasted, giving birth to him, in his 1994 work O.
What all Clark’s pieces had in common, however, was a retention of his classical roots – the contrast between the wild antics on stage and the serene, effortless grace of Clark’s dancing was what made them so compelling. And even at the height of his anarchy, the ballet establishment kept an eye on him. “[Frederick] Ashton, Ninette de Valois, they wanted to know what he was doing. They knew he was a real artist,” Gothard said.
“Michael demanded a language appropriate to his age. He is very clever and tries to make the right decisions. But to be a real artist can also be very painful. And that’s something he handles privately.”
When I asked Clark if he’d ever regretted turning down the Royal Ballet, he gave me what sounded like a well-rehearsed line about always wanting “to be rough trade as opposed to a virgin. I didn’t want to be a major. I wanted to be an independent. I didn’t want to have a contract. I didn’t want anybody telling me what to do.”
Where did that self-determination come from?
“I guess my mother, probably. My mother’s quite like that. Though she can be extremely conformist in lots of ways.
“Of course, I can look back now. There were certain roles I would love to have danced. But no, I don’t regret it at all.
“I could see at the Royal Ballet School what it would be like. Somebody from the company was appointed my minder, because I was in trouble with drugs, so I was able to socialise with the company and I just remember having this experience where they were all speaking a completely different language, something completely alien. And I thought, I just don’t belong here. And this was a moment that stayed with me, and I didn’t really go back.
“Also, my natural gifts … I was less inclined towards the things that men are meant to be good at. I wasn’t a good jumper. I had to have extra lessons. At the end of each lesson I had to do slower jumps, and then fast ones. My extensions were great. I guess I was growing physically very quickly at that point, and my strength hadn’t quite caught up.
“But all that lent itself well to what I wanted to do myself. Men and women weren’t going to do different things. We could do anything we wanted to do. A woman could support me, or I could support her, or two men could be together.
“The body can be political, too. And I think the way people chose to dress was, for a lot of us, the only way we could express how we felt, and that seemed a very important part of what I was doing. Because it’s a visual art. How could you deny that what people wear means something?
“I wanted to collaborate with people who had ideas on the same level as me, who weren’t just going to be told what to do. Like set designers, or costume designers. I wanted people who were going to challenge me as well.”
By the end of the 1980s, Clark was as famous for his clubbing as he was for his dancing. In 1989, he staged a work with Bowery at the Anthony D’Offay Gallery in London called Heterospective, in which Clark danced to the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” in a flesh-coloured body suit punctured with syringes, like some punk Saint Sebastian.
In 1991, he took the role of Caliban in Peter Greenaway’s film Prospero’s Books. In 1994, he pulled out of a project for the Royal Ballet and then he disappeared.
Clark has talked before in interviews about drugs, as he has about his father’s alcoholism. He has never tried to excuse his habit.
“From the first time I heard heroin being talked about, I knew that it was going to be part of my life because it was the most extreme thing you could do to yourself. And as much as I was loved as a child, I guess, my father was very self-destructive.
“For a child it wasn’t the most stable environment because I never knew what he was going to be like. But I loved it. He was so funny, and so entertaining. He was very much like Leigh Bowery, I have to say: big, loud, outrageously funny. My friends would come and stay with me just to witness it, to see if it was real, what they’d heard. I adored him.
“But escape, that’s part of it, too. It’s part of not being stuck. It’s not being the same person all of the time. Isn’t it?
“I’m not saying one needed to indulge as much as I did. But there are things that you wouldn’t understand if you hadn’t done that, [things] that somehow do inform what you do. But then that can be said of anything, from daydreams, to real dreams, to altered states… It doesn’t have to involve drugs.”
There is a fragility about Clark that isn’t just physical. Despite his injuries, he seems limber and moves so gracefully but his face looks pale and strained. There’s little of the Scottish accent left but he speaks rapidly, running sentences into one another as if he can’t explain quickly enough. Other times he hesitates, until he’s got the words he really wants. He’s funny and engaging, and laughs a lot, often at himself. Somehow it’s not surprising that people have wanted to shelter him and protect him and support him all these years.
One of the most loyal has been Richard Glasstone, who was his teacher at the Royal Ballet School and who, with some gaps, has continued to teach Clark and the members of his company over three decades. Now 78, and made an MBE in this year’s Queen’s birthday honours, he says he only really gave up his classes last year.
Glasstone is an exponent of the Cecchetti method, a strict regime which instils the basic ballet principles into a dancer for life. In the early 1980s, he’d lost touch with Clark. Then, “One night he turned up at my flat and said could I go through the Cecchetti port de bras exercise. He really wanted to go back to his roots. And it was after that when he asked me to go back and teach the company.”
Clark always has Glasstone on hand when he auditions a new dancer. “Michael’s so fussy,” says Glasstone. “I mean he will audition 100 people for one dancer, because he wants them not just classically trained but classically trained in that way of moving. [Cecchetti] is not to do with virtuosity, it’s to do with flow of movement and musicality. It’s the movement between the [positions] that’s important to him, and that, to me, is what real dancing is about, whether it’s Fred Astaire or whether it’s ballet.
“Within the last two or three years he’s had to make this difficult move from having been the star dancer – and he was a really wonderful dancer – to being just a choreographer, and he has, I feel now, made that difficult transition beautifully.
“I think for years the critics have wanted to say, ‘Oh why doesn’t he use proper music?’ That’s the first thing. And then, ‘He’s got such talent, why is he wasting it?’ Then when he does start doing other things, they simply want him to go back to what he did before. Most critics don’t know what they’re looking at when they’re looking at him.”
Ellen van Schuylenburch had told me that when he is working on a piece, Clark tends to develop it alone, in the studio, using a video camera to record and study the movements. “Theoretically I am meant to go home and look at it all,” he said. “But I mean, who’s going to go home and watch themselves all night? How sad.”
But do you do that?
“Yes. I have to. It’s part of my job. But it’s ridiculous. I’m watching myself talking to myself and I’m thinking, ‘Who is this insane person? Why are they behaving like this…?’ I mean, it’s interesting to me but it doesn’t necessarily generate new ideas.”
Do you always start with an idea?
“Sometimes. It can be so simple. It can be like: this leg is always going to be straight, and this leg is always going to be bent. It can be different physical states we get into at different ages. But I’m not somebody who thinks whatever I think of is good. I’m amazed at people like that.”
When you’re putting a piece together, do you see it within a framework?
“I don’t see it as a finished thing. It can be very practical. Like I’ve got three weeks now, and I’ve got to do a certain amount each day. I do the hardest things first, so that the dancers can do them more often. It’s good for their stamina. But frankly, nothing’s ever good enough at the moment, that’s what drives me insane. I just keep scrapping and redoing it. It’s part of the training as a dancer, you’re never good enough, but it gets very tiring after years and years of telling yourself you’ve got to try harder.”
But you know when something’s right?
“Yes. You have to be on top of it. I don’t really like it to be comfortable. Extreme is good for me. Fast: slow. Big: small. I’m not really interested in the middle ground.”
The Michael Clark Company’s “Triple Bill” is at the Barbican Theatre, London, November 21-30.
“Michael Clark” is published by Violette Editions, £49.95.
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This article has been amended since its original publication.