PRINT September 2008


STRETCHING IDOLS, bending bodies, reshaping minds and audiences. Encountering “The Stravinsky Project” over the course of two nights in June at the Rose Theater at Lincoln Center in New York made me resurface puzzled and empowered. Those unhinging qualities of bodies moving. I liked what this did to me. An event that had it all. The production of pleasure and strangeness and more: moments that make us slow down to take in the substance of experience in all its complexity. As if Iggy Pop and Yvonne Rainer had been rolled into one.

And the site of all this, the dancers’ bodies, barefoot, continuously and most purposefully exchanging motions. The body becomes the medium of differentiation, and differentiation of perception occurs. Partially shattered discourse. Intense materialism, structures laid out like nonmimetic brushstrokes. Intensifying all cognitive ambitions at once.

This is not writing itself to give you more info, but to show those processes of the mind, to dissect and reconstruct those images offered by the event of “The Stravinsky Project” by Michael Clark—to touch and resist, to choose to be interested in those processes that lie between the becoming and vanishing of images, to put everything in doubt, the now, the then, joyfully, humorously, while insisting on the specificity of images.

Clark’s short program note starts out: “Balanchine, Nijinsky, and Nijinska were something of a holy trinity for me as a student. . . . Since then over time they have become family,” then goes on to “pay homage to Balanchine, the father of American modern ballet. I intend to do so by making a small detour . . . to forge my own path.” And: “It is this impulse to create things I have never seen before, coupled with my respect for the past, which beats at the very heart of my work.”

Well, he goes about that creation with no hesitation. Whatsoever. Leaps in forcefully desystematizing, destabilizing, trying to undo the logics of representation while remaining interested in the history, and the inescapability, of that logic.

This interest in a continuous development of paradoxical moves coincides with a generational formation. Punk rock, 1980s club cultures in Great Britain. It was a pop-cultural moment of flourishing collaborations of all kinds. In Clark’s case, this means his early involvement with designers (like Bodymap), with bands (like Wire, the Fall, Laibach), and, very important, with the most unclassifiable Leigh Bowery. Clark was choreographing his most punk-attitude-laden ballets then, massively pop-spectacular, notorious for the strapped-on-prosthetic-dildo act, to name one example.

The posing and voguing. One signature thing in Clark’s choreography is the movement of the arms. There is the exaggerated stretching out, the hunching down, the controlled extreme expressionisms. Like a tableau vivant exploding. Depicting the conditions of desire in the world. Elements of pogo dancing; the hunch down; and, very often, small movements of the pelvis, usually arrested in an odd slow-motion wiggle that is asexual and sexy at the same time: Those movements show up repeatedly. And even the most untrained audience, even the spectator who knows nothing about ballet, will find a connection. Then one can start looking at the specifics. Each body—and the bodies in this ensemble are interestingly shaped, some very small, one very statuesque, one like a spring, and so on—is dealing with it in a different way. The bodies start speaking up with their limbs, while remaining utterly constrained by the structures of the ballet. Curator Suzanne Cotter called it “expanded plasticity.” Or you could call it a conceptual Gesamtkunstwerk, a total artwork that is never really total, that is purposely distorted with humor or classicism, or rebellion, or attitude. A gesamt that is never complete, or really holistic—and that does not always makes sense, either. But gesamt enough to still be able to connect with the body, with art.

One of the first events in this generational formation was identification with Iggy Pop. In 1977, the LP The Idiot was released. Still in art school, I drew the cover excessively and undertook a punk-rock pilgrimage to London to see him play live. He was really extremely bare then, penis partially out. Then a hundred years later—summer of 2003, I think it was—riding on the back of Steven Parrino’s motorcycle to Jones Beach on Long Island to attend Iggy Pop’s reunion with the Stooges. A staging of the anarchic mad energies of the past under the conditions of the present. Aged, yet still possessing enough of that radical defiance to do it!

The unbelievably impressive opening sequence of Clark’s OO—not technically part of “The Stravinsky Project” but here acting as a prologue to it—is set to “Mass Production,” a song from The Idiot. The Stooges are folded into the history of the ballet, made equivalent to Stravinsky and the notoriety, the glamour of the composer’s original stagings.

To come up with impressive new physical representations requires some guts. At the same time, there is O, Clark’s re-imagining of Apollo, which used to be called Stravinsky’s “white ballet.” Now, in O, the bodies onstage find themselves in interaction with architectural constructions: walls of mirrors. Up against dance’s history. Full-on. Not easy to digest.

Somehow, now and then collapsed into a moment of astonishment and pleasure with the beginning of the first night’s program. It was like the energy of an Iggy and the Stooges show, stripped of all nostalgia by the dancers, the speed, the stage set, the costumes.

An amazingly civilized gathering this was, too, insofar as a lot of New York–based artists were in the audience. It’s very rare for so many art-world people to share an event in this way. You might see them, but usually at openings or dinners. In specific configurations. But here all were unified by the urge to see something outside the range of the normal, outside those regimes that usually control our responses to objects and spectacle. Unified, too, by being disconnected from what we all spend most of our time doing: making product. Or producing knowledge in commodified form: making art. All seeking out something. “Send in the Clowns” (Barbra Streisand’s version) is another song from OO’s sound track. There we were, all showing up. Clark surely has anticipated his audience.

The “official” New York critique in the papers and weekly magazines was kind of sour—critics kept spotting an absence of emotion, deficiencies in comparison to “their” Balanchine (who choreographed Apollo); they kept up the idea of a gold standard. Meanwhile, here is somebody who is talking about modern ballet’s history in a different way, introducing new kinds of bodies and laying bare the struggles of sex and of the mind that were concealed. Of course, any dance that proceeds from such impulses cannot be just a period piece.

To spend two nights watching “The Stravinsky Project” was to be reminded of and rerouted through impossible struggles. Like those of bodies. Bodies in surroundings. Productive escapism? And yet, perhaps because of that, instant engaged viewing occurred. A material manifestation of thought. Straight on, above, and sideways. Clark’s use of line and mobile patterns is astonishing. No cuteness anywhere—even in those weird and sensitive and highly stylized moments in OO with nudity and muffs.

Zones of energy and pain. Undoing gender. All bodies equally driving the logic of the choreography. Sex scattered all over the surface and through space. Then there are more disruptions thrown in: odd props; projected words; the use of other artists’ iconic materials, like a Warhol Liz projected onto a backdrop (in OO); clips from Julien Temple’s Sex Pistols movie The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle (also in OO); and a bit of documentary footage showing a very old Stravinsky conducting his own composition The Firebird (in I Do). Perhaps Stravinsky’s career was the great modernist music swindle. There is an existential, passionate attachment to both of those strands of the history of radical gesturing—the Sex Pistols’ and Stravinsky’s—in Clark’s performances, but also the need to put those attachments to the test. They are tested through the movement vocabulary of the bodies. And Clark walks among them, dressed in a dark suit, during the dance to the Sex Pistols’ “Submission” in OO. (At his age, he only shows up occasionally.) Not self-stylization, but self-dispersal into all those bodies.

What is it that draws in the clowns? Structural and material conditions of dance, not sublimating or replacing but producing desire—and with it, a new conception of pleasure in bodies. The loudness of the music emphasizes that urgency. Overreaching, vulnerable, humorous. An acute instinct for pattern and line. Everybody can understand this. Coming and going. From body to body. Bodies keep moving other bodies. All over—erotics as nonevent, as a condition. Nothing contained, all constrained. Interlaced eruptions, violations, displacements, radical gestures.

It was a great experience. Only an outsider, someone coming in from another world (Clark’s appearance in New York was his fi rst in many years) could have had such an impact. A fresh and dark breeze. I can see all these younger artists in the audience, interested in Clark’s patterns and maneuvers, translating the collaborative energy of dance, taking it back to their studios. Floors. Walls. Rehearsals. Canvases.

As for myself, well, “The Stravinsky Project” feels like part of my interest in finding out how structures of desire can be laid out in art, and my interest in tapping into the formative years (in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) of the history of the broader cultural project whose aim is mapping those structures. “The Stravinsky Project” is a how-to manual: how to do a period piece and leave it behind at the same time; how to get into the non-communicative realm; how to not “get it right”; how to avoid the commodified stereotypes of rebellion; how to let intense nonresults happen.

A simultaneous building of surfaces and depths. Deterritorializing desire, degendering, regendering, in odd and upside-down ways (just one example: the way Clark turned the idea of the wedding totally on its head in I Do, so that the whole thing becomes about the impossibility of such a union of two). Emphatic nonidealism!

So it happened at the beginning of June 2008. A conceptual project that left me questioning bodies, music, lifestyles. Leaving mental pictures behind, pictures capable of making you leap into radicalizing your relationship to your own work and to your audience. All this coincides for me with a painterly reinvestigation of Cézanne’s bathers (see also Aruna D’Souza’s book on that subject) as well as Catherine Breillat’s movie The Last Mistress, in which desire knows no boundaries. Yet this kind of knowledge is not available without intense bending and stretching and reaching out to form—distorted form, but form. Now, then, now then, now.

Jutta Koether is a New York–based artist.