PRINT October 2001



During the premiere of his new show at the Hebbel Theater in Berlin this August, choreographer Michael Clark himself appeared only briefly, wielding a janitor's broom to sweep his company of dancers offstage. This came as something of a surprise since Clark’s personal charisma as a performer has always underpinned his status as one of contemporary dance’s true stars. He looks like a hybrid of Charlie Chaplin and Lauren Bacall with the physique and control of an Olympic gymnast. After training in traditional Scottish dance and ballet, Clark achieved instant celebrity on the launch of his own company in 1984 for bringing to the etiolated world of dance the energy and attitude of the postpunk club scene. Favoring as musical foil the harsh, discordant sound and bitterly humorous lyrics of the Manchester-based band The Fall, Clark's dance was full of joy and insouciance, grace and cheek, surging group movement and virtuoso shape making. His 1992 interpretation of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring combined typically sensational staging and costumes with some of Clark’s most vulnerable and emotional choreography, restoring a primal innocence and grandeur to the early-twentieth-century masterpiece.

Now, after several years in the wilderness and a strong comeback at London’s Roundhouse in 1998, Michael Clark is both taking stock and moving on, and he has forgone a central performing role so that the dance itself is the focus of attention. The centerpiece of Before and After: The Fall, which tours Italy, the UK, and Spain this month and next, is a new work created in collaboration with London-based artist Sarah Lucas. Although of the same generation, Lucas came to prominence a decade later than Clark. What they share is a zest for the surreal and a thoughtfulness that belies their “bad boy/bad girl” reputations.

Greg Hilty


I think I reached some kind of threshold where I needed to look back to move forward. I worked very fast when I was young; I’d choreographed about sixteen pieces before I even launched the company. Most of the early work with music by The Fall and Wire was really about energy rather than about positions, more about the line of movement from one shape to another. Bad dance focuses on shape, not telling the viewer how you get from one place to another. I've never really been keen on that. But after a while you look back and, even if you’re not interested in returning to a body of work for its own sake, you realize that for better or worse you have developed a vocabulary. That's a little hard to accept, but I wanted to work with it, not against it. So the title piece of Before and After: The Fall is kind of a remix of works I made between 1984 and 1988, from New Puritans to I Am Curious, Orange, all performed to music by The Fall. We’ve recreated costumes and props by Leigh Bowery and Trojan, both unique artists who are no longer alive but whose work so strongly characterized that moment. Those early pieces, they’re about making music loud and dance big. On one level the music is very driving and deceptively simple. But I’ve also always loved the language of their lead singer, Mark E. Smith, and as a choreographer you’ve got to work both with and against the words.

I’ve spent a lot of time over recent months making a work using a piece of music by Erik Satie. I was attracted to his notion of “furniture music” and the idea of something very simple, something purist in the extreme. The music involves phrases played with one hand on the piano, then replayed: I liked the idea of stripping away everything recognizable. The idea is for a series of choreographic studies. I originally intended it to be part of the collaboration with Sarah Lucas, but that’s turned into something else. When it’s finished, it will probably be more like the last work, current/SEE. Some people said that piece was like warming up, that it took a long time to get there. Looking back on it, and on the whole collaboration with Susan Stenger and her all-bass band Big Bottom, it seems a matter of imposing restraint, of really measuring how far you can go. I suppose I’m interested in collapse, both as my usual way out and as a result of pushing things to the extreme. It’s the one thing you're not meant to do. Classical dancers like Rudolf Nureyev have always tried to hide failure with a flourish, sticking an arm in the air. We do that too, but deliberately. You’ll see phrases where a position leads to its own collapse, where a shape buckles and falls apart. Or sequences that are opposed to everything you’ve ever been taught, graceless, awkward. It’s actually very hard and dangerous, which makes it exciting.

I’m also interested in disassociating the dance from specific pieces of music, and vice versa. There’s a P.J. Harvey song we’ve been working to, giving it lots of beginnings all through rehearsal. Then I had this idea to change the music every night for one of the pieces. I don’t want my dancers to be dependent on the music. Often dancers can use music to finish a phrase, rather than carry it through to completion themselves.

The idea of working with Sarah developed naturally out of our friendship. Also I’ve always been drawn to music, and to art, as something outside the dance, something to set against it and test it. I wanted this piece to be a genuine collaboration, to be able to accommodate Sarah's vision and ideas completely, in their own right and not just as a complement to mine. Originally I asked if she wanted to choreograph it too. . . . She’s worked on all aspects of the piece, including costumes and, of course, set design. It’s more satisfying if you can talk about everything together. There were no formal meetings. We just enjoy each other’s company.

So the piece is very sculptural both in the way it looks and in the nature of the dance. The focus of the piece is a huge arm that can be moved. The dancers move objects around, a configuration of objects that really determine the work. In my previous piece we pretty well avoided arm movements or gestures, whereas here it’s the opposite. The movement is rhythmic, repetitive, task-based, functional. It’s hard to find dancers who don’t always look like dancers, especially if they’ve had classical training. The message to get across, and where working with an artist helps, is that dance is not just about being looked at.