PRINT September 2008


I FIRST HEARD OF MICHAEL CLARK in the late 1980s, when I bought the Fall’s sound track to his performance I Am Curious, Orange. Through the rock press, I learned of his work with Wire and Leigh Bowery, and through those associations and a handful of still images, I developed a vague conception of something punk, English, and gay. Michael Clark became an imaginary pop idol for an isolated, sexually repressed Anglophile.

The first time I actually saw Clark perform was when his company came to Lincoln Center in New York this past June. Over the intervening twenty years, I had developed a “fine” art practice rooted in a pop/punk cultural experience—like Clark’s? In retrospect, my interest in things like Minimalism and structuralist film were often at odds with my interest in things like the Ramones and politics, and the balance struck has veered back and forth. Would my imaginary pop idol offer a resolution?

The Lincoln Center program’s opening performance conveniently seemed like a Michael Clark primer. Comprising short numbers set mostly to songs from the punk era, OO began with a procession of identically dressed dancers slinking across the black-and-white Op-patterned stage to the drone of Iggy Pop’s “Mass Production.” The dancers were of different shapes and sizes, but they were made to appear uniform by half-dark, half-light unitards. The movements were controlled and mechanized, and the formal, futuristic vision seemed more modernist than punk.

In subsequent numbers, the dancers broke down into different groupings, assuming positions, arranging limbs, always with a curious level of restraint. Tights in different shades of flesh were an almost disturbing tease, and when the dancers came out naked for a routine set to Barbra Streisand’s rendition of “Send in the Clowns,” they modestly covered their privates with long, feathered muffs. Ballet makes me think of leotards and bulges, and modern dance usually just embarrasses me. But this dancing seemed to be actually about leotards, bulges, and embarrassing poses (maybe not that punk, but prudishly English). Surprisingly, it was “The Stravinsky Project,” Clark’s trio of three re-envisioned Stravinsky ballets, that came closest to fulfilling my Michael Clark punk-rock-’n’-roll fantasy. Punk often had rock-historical strains—the hippies were the ones who promised liberation from the past—and like Stravinsky’s neoclassicism, it was as much of a return as a revolt. Clark’s vocabulary of dance is rooted in the classical-modern tradition (these are not moves you’ll likely see in a club), and with “The Stravinsky Project,” he doesn’t so much portray the score as inhabit and react against it. Movement is in a culturally symbolic, dialectical relationship with restraint, and here the engagement with dance history and art history takes on a tumultuous force.

In the first of the Stravinsky-inspired pieces, O (not to be confused with OO), the minimal set employs mirrors to confine and explode movement. Mmm . . . strings together symbolically laden fragments—dancing toilets, a bravura solo by a topless female dancer with a Hitler mustache—in a ritual of modernism gone berserk. The final dance, I Do, is comparatively conservative. With a full choir onstage, the dancers seem subsumed by the score as they enact that most traditional and profoundly restrictive of rituals, a wedding. Hatched from a nesting-doll-like egg, the bride is re-entombed at the altar in a bizarre white phallic tube. Twenty years after I bought that Fall record, with gay liberation having given way to gay marriage, it was a moment to take stock. Clark offered no easy resolution, and as today's punk Avril Lavigne would say, “So much for my happy ending.”

Jonathan Horowitz is an artist based in New York.