PRINT September 2008


THE FIRST PROJECT I ever did with Michael was Current/See [1998], which started off with Michael dancing a solo, joined later by me, and then by two other dancers who gradually filtered into it. But the most immediate visual impact was definitely made by a band called Big Bottom: It consisted of five bass guitarists, including Cerith Wyn Evans and Angela Bulloch, using these enormous speakers arranged in a semicircle at the back of the stage. The amplifiers were laid out like Stonehenge pillars, as tall as the band members themselves! And while they were playing quite simple, recognizable riffs from Deep Purple and other groups, the sound was just huge. So our movements in that piece were very much about that rhythm, very physical, and, as it turned out, quite demanding.

In rehearsals, Michael, who had developed the music with Susan Stenger, would pick out the rhythms he wanted us to follow. He was dancing a great deal at the time and could show you exactly what he wanted—which, of course, he could do so much better than anyone else. For me, this is still the essence of Michael’s method: The material is of utmost importance. As dancers, we are constantly trying to refine the material back to its original form, since it is so easy for things to slip physically and for the detail to be muddied. In this regard I have never worked with anyone like Michael. He isn’t vague with movement instructions and doesn’t encourage improvisation or interpretation. He simply wants to see the choreography demonstrated clearly. And as a dancer, when you reach the performance, after you’ve been doing movements for so long in different contexts and different orders, practicing the steps . . . then you do have a sense of freedom.

The experience of performing those movements, however, can be terrifying. I mean, Michael has involved people who have never danced before, but to show what he wants, with the precision he demands, requires a certain level of technical ability. There’s something really interesting—and exacting—about Michael’s lines. It is his style to work with very parallel legs, or very turned-out legs, or one of each—or to ask that, say, the direction of the torso be opposed to that of the legs. This is rare in contemporary dance at the moment. It is a bit like seeing ballet, but in its purest form: You see the clean lines of pure classical training.

One of his most striking pieces for me, in fact, is OO [2005; also titled Part One], which offers something of an instructive microcosm of his approach. At the beginning, people come onstage very slowly to an Iggy Pop song called “Mass Production.” I have seen very few works start so slowly. You have to be extremely brave, because it is the most difficult thing to be asked to do—just to enter and stand on one leg while bending over. And yet it is totally mesmerizing for the audience, all the more so because of how the piece is developing visually: The floor is striped, and the figures appear in black-and-white and flesh-colored costumes; often we are asked to do it with makeup on one side of our face; and there are many ways for people to enter to different sound tracks and in different formations, with other dancers passing through them in turn. It is like a Rubik’s Cube, that piece, with endless possibilities. And Michael has been working on that particular opening sequence for years. He obviously finds the slow patterns fascinating. I honestly think Michael could play with that piece until the end of his life—though I don’t know that I’m ready to dance in it that long!

Yet there is a way in which all his pieces are works in progress, because he wants to keep them interesting, and to perfect them. Even Current/See was being tweaked right up until the very last day we performed the piece, a couple years after its debut. So you have to keep your mind active and open. This was the case as well with I Do [2007], the staging of which I think is genius. In preparing, we first worked on small phrases, starting off with maybe eight beats of movement, which then grow and grow, until they are tried out. For I Do, we tried different bits of material to different parts of the score, finding out where they worked, and then taking into account what Michael was trying to achieve visually. Things inevitably change, and to be honest, whole sections can be completely scrapped. Some of the ideas Michael introduced to the piece were brilliant yet never made it to the stage. With time, I suspect, there is even more that will go in, but also he won’t hang on to material just because it’s good. It has to have a place. And so I do see it almost as Michael making a picture. It’s not far removed from art, because you can see him wipe the slate clean and start again.

—As told to Tim Griffin

Kate Coyne is a London-based dancer who has been working with the Michael Clark Company for eleven years.