New Work 2012, ©Hugo Glendinning
18th of October: Michael Clark‘s New Work 2012 in London; the exhibition “Xtravaganza, Staging Leigh Bowery” opening at the Kunsthalle in Vienna. Two parallel events: on one hand, an extraordinary show of music and dance that could not have been livelier nor more contemporary, despite its numerous nods to the 70s and the 80s, on the other hand a retrospective of a regrettably half-forgotten legend of the past century, that will hopefully reignite the Bowery legacy. Just like Andrew Logan and Derek Jarman, Clark and Bowery represent two different facets of artistic rebellion crossing paths at a given time. When Leigh Bowery was part of Clark’s choreographies, it was his individuality, his being a social and physical exception, his presence alone that both shocked and seduced the crowd. Not so much synergy as disturbance, oddness. In other words, disruption of the stage. Clark nowadays is most often behind the curtain, choreographing his technically superb company with the precision of a clockmaker.
The shows of the Michael Clark Company are all about synergy: New Work is a moving, uplifting and at times extravagant artistic collaboration, where only the bare stage unites its different performers, media, styles. An earlier version of the show was performed in Glasgow earlier in October: to simplify, the show is composed by two parts divided by an interval, one featuring a Scritti Politti soundtrack, the other PULP‘s F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E and Jarvis Cocker’s Relaxed Muscle‘s tracks. In Scotland, the dancers interpreted the second part of the show with Scritti Politti playing live on stage; in London, Jarvis Cocker and his band stormed out from behind the curtains after the interval and transformed the show into an impossible rock concert with a mute and immobile audience, hit by the schizophrenic combination of ballet, theatre, and live music. It is intriguing to speculate about the alternative musical combination, with the segments inverted; for the Scritti segment with which the show started at the Barbican was pure minimalistic delight. Clark seemed to have toned down the surreal and the theatricality of earlier decades (as epitomized by 1988′s Hail the New Puritans for instance) to focus on the graphically and typographically scientific moves of his eight dancers.
The piece opened with a hanged figure descending from the flies: dancer Harry Alexander, a corpse-like dummy with bare feet contrasting against a projected green screen. The rather melodramatic overture (which had the audience giggling), however, didn’t lead to a Victor Hugo trip nor to any sort of narrative whatsoever; Clark reduced dance and scenic work to their core. Charles Atlas, the lighting designer with whom he has contributed many times before (most notably for his cinematographic excursuses) was a crucial protagonist of the show. Scenography and lighting were the same thing: monochrome and tie-dyed backdrops of light from green to purple/pink and back to blue. This softened the sheer minimalism and the apparent simplicity of both the choreography and Stevie Stewart’s all-black costumes, and matched quite nicely with Scritti Politti’s lyrical, borderline corny 80s sound. The soundtrack did turn this pristine exercise into a flowing movement, especially Boom Boom Bap, its haunting electronic beats enlivened the huge concrete theatre. Dance-wise, the typographic lines of arms, legs and bodies were those of 30s fashion covers; totalitarian regimes’ gymnastics; flag signals, and so on and so forth. At the most poignant moments though, associations did not matter, only bodies. Clark’s distinctive wit and sensuality saved the moves from being too analytical or too cerebral. One of the best sequences was his relaxed entrance on stage, a funny interlude where he took the role of the director-teacher stepping into the performance field to guide and interact with his dancers.
New Work 2012, ©Hugo Glendinning
Contemporary dance and its deconstructionist branch especially are often perceived as incredibly pretentious. It is hard to explain how a mirrored plié on an empty stage can be more intense than the flourishes of classical ballet. Yet, New Work’s first segment was considerably classical compared to other work by the choreographer – it was an investigation of the vocabulary of dance as well as the artist’s personal vocabulary. That is the beauty of choreographies by the likes of Cunningham, Bausch, Forsythe and Clark himself. By breaking the codes of ballet, by playing with violent, sexual or outrageously undecorated movements, these choreographers keep redefining and investigating the human body, to which they give soul and voice. The fun is that this voice can have a very wide range: often with Michael Clark, the soundtrack defines the mood rather than being simply illustrative. The dancing language doesn’t change radically – everything else does. In this case, the interval marked the separation between a very elegant, sweet, at times almost scholastic piece and a much more operatic, quixotic one. The second part started with one of Pulp’s best song, the moody, dark and cynical F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E, the dancers wearing shaded-off yellow-to-red leotards that transformed them into gilded statues; sculptures on fire; sunsets; falling leaves; etc. – a beautiful contrast with the coldness of the song (“I’m so cold” being its recurrent sentence). Dancer Julie Cunningham was particularly moving here, the purity of her gestures emphasized by the plastic lighting. Rectangles of light loosely delineated stage areas, while the image projected on the screen appeared at first as a horizontal line, successively shaping roads, perspectives, virtual rooms, and new spaces of all kinds.
In fact, the white line on the black screen was the prelude to words and sentences that started moving in front of our eyes in a crazy frenzy: Why me? Why you? What?; and the cryptic “I’m thinking of starting a zoo”. Typography is used rhythmically in both Pulp’s song and Clark’s ‘alphabets’; it becomes a dance itself when words run upside down and right to left, to climax in interrogation marks (one of the most recurrent symbols of Post-modernism); meanwhile, bodies lie martyr-like at the ends of the stage. Some kind of chess play is taking place on the grid black floor. “So what do I do? I’ve got a slightly sick feeling in my stomach / Like I’m standing on top of a very high building oh yeah.“, sings Jarvis Cocker. Vertigo is indeed one of the effects this work has on its spectators, but it is nothing in comparison to the dissolution of the stage that is about to take place. Contemporary dance (and accessorily, the fame of being a ‘rebel’) also allows you to have Jarvis in 70s Halloween make-up and outfit (dandy, camp and pirate zombie, his skeleton T-shirt and his wide-leg trousers so ugly only him could pull them off) taking over the stage with his usual energy – the space quite literally broken down as the screen disappears and Relaxed Muscle emerge in a phantasmagoric reveal.
What the hell was going on? Said grotesque Cocker – or rather his alter-ego Darren Spooner – is singing, dancing, shouting and mimicking; mid-stage, the dancers, dressed in futuristic zebra/skeleton/comics costumes are executing a clean choreography with black stools as their only props, forming a diagonal and a chain that summarize to perfection Clark’s skills with geometrical and symmetrical compositions; the other members of the Relaxed Muscle clan, Wayne Marsden and Zoë Grisedale-Sherry, form the backdrop, haphazardly bejeweled in fluorescent wristbands and other rave gear. A visual cacophony, basically. As a result, the pure, elegant, minimal lines and angles of the dance seem far less intellectual than they did during the first part. Jarvis’ shouts echo loudly within the space – his performance is surprisingly as good, if not better than a PULP live at the apex of a festival. His overwhelming presence fits well with the acceleration of every aspect of the performance: not only the projections, but also innumerable fluorescent flashes and haunting reflections, mirrors scattered here and there between and on the stools. The more chaotic the stage becomes, the more it involves the audience; whereas the first part pleased the brain with its harmony, the second goes straight to the guts.
Largely due to Jarvis Cocker’s charisma; his interaction with the audience and his performance itself might have taken the attention away from the nine dancers, but that is the only letdown of a brilliant night – you will get not only a Michael Clark double bill, but also a stellar live starring one of Britain’s finest voices, all of this in the architectural gem that is the Barbican Centre. As usual, the programs of the Barbican prove daring, and successful. To call the night memorable would be an understatement: it is not very often that you leave a dance show in a state of euphoria, triggered by a performance that might break many rules, but is a declaration of love to the stage that will leave few unmoved.
Tickets and more information here, the show will run until the 27th of October.Leave a Comment