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PRINT January/February 2021

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Celestial Body

Charles Atlas, Because We Must, 1989, video, color, sound, 52 minutes 37 seconds. Foreground: Michael Clark. Background: Amanda King. Production still. Photo: Dee Conway/Bridgeman Images.

“I DANCED MYSELF out of the womb . . . I danced myself into the tomb,” quavers Marc Bolan in the 1971 T. Rex song from which “Cosmic Dancer,” a retrospective marking the fifteen-year anniversary of Michael Clark Company’s residence at London’s Barbican, takes its title. Cosmic suggests earthly transcension—not needing to be grounded—and indeed, the tension between flight and anchorage is what lent this survey its off-kilter coherence, providing room for reflection on what Clark, both a blazing provocateur and an imperially laureled institution of British dance, can and cannot offer audiences today. In retracing Clark’s career alongside a time line of soaring poverty in the United Kingdom, which ran parallel to the national media’s scapegoating strategies, certain post-punk aesthetics can now appear tired. As Clark collaborator Mark E. Smith snarled: “The conventional is now experimental / The experimental is now conventional.” But this dialectic remains compelling in Clark’s work, offering a way to read the languages forged among fashion, music, and art and to complicate, through dance—that famously “vertical expression of a horizontal desire”—the dynamics between sexual cultures and the market.

At the Barbican, I bought a postcard of Clark in a tutu and studded dog-collar wristband, a souvenir documenting his presence at the opening of Derek Jarman’s 1984 exhibition at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, and propped it on my mantelpiece. It’s easy to be drawn to Clark’s image, and to feel the economic forces that our attraction reflects—all part of the spectacle he affirms. Filming Clark’s interpretation of commodity in Marx’s Capital for his 2013 film, It for Others, Duncan Campbell uses a bird’s-eye view that effectively flattens the space between dancers and floor, rendering elevation impossible. In fact, flight was an early technical hurdle for Clark. “I was less inclined towards the things that men are meant to be good at,” he has recalled. “I wasn’t a good jumper. I had to have extra lessons. . . . But all that lent itself well to what I wanted to do myself. . . . A woman could support me, or I could support her, or two men could be together.” After leaving the Royal Ballet School in 1979 to join Ballet Rambert, Clark met Richard Alston, whom he credits with helping him understand the importance of internal movement and its ability to augment his classical training’s emphasis on externally perceivable shape. Dutiful Ducks (1982), first choreographed for Clark by Alston as a solo, swirls through pirouettes and rolling shoulders, syncopated by claps and fast feet switching through changements that stay close to the ground, ready to root brief pauses in attitude.

The cosmos of “Cosmic Dancer” is a firmament traceable to one of that word’s earliest etymons—firmare, “to support”—and boasts a litany of collaborators, whose contributions identify the various support structures needed to sustain creative expression, be they of families formed by choice and friendship, mothers and teachers and royal patronage, or health and housing. The certain libidinal tensions within such structures reveal themselves in Charles Atlas’s perfect film Hail the New Puritan, a fictionalized day in the life of Michael Clark originally broadcast on Channel 4 television in 1986, in which, halfway through, we find release-technique specialist and early Clark collaborator Gaby Agis careening down the Regent’s Canal towpath in East London. “I’ve been living at Michael’s for long enough now. He’s been very kind, but it’s really time to move on,” she says, her leather-clad arms figuring a port de bras. She confesses her love for her osteopath, who reminds her of Clark Kent—a slippage, perhaps, in regard to our protagonist’s surname. Atlas has restored this monologue and other scenes from New Puritan, intermixing them with fragments of his 1989 film, Because We Must, under the anagrammatically titled A Prune Twin (2020) and spreading them across nine hanging screens and four monitors at the exhibition’s core.

Charles Atlas, Hail the New Puritan, 1986, 16 mm transferred to video, color, sound, 84 minutes 54 seconds. Foreground: Michael Clark.

To navigate from A Prune Twin to the rest of the exhibition, viewers were required to walk by re-creations of giant set-design pieces—Heinz baked-bean tins, a hamburger, French fries, and a Houses of Parliament backdrop—used for I Am Curious Orange (1988), a frenzied collaboration with the Fall in which Michael Clark and Company portrayed William of Orange, the putatively queer Dutch-born King of England, as a literal citrus. The ballet was made the same year Margaret Thatcher enacted Section 28, a legal ban on local government “promotion” of homosexuality that was trumpeted by a gauntlet of tabloid headlines about the “pretended” family relations formed by same-sex parents. Elsewhere, Clark’s likeness proliferated in a fantastic collection of print ephemera documenting international tours; Peter Doig’s Portrait (Corbusier), 2009, envisioned the dancer as the modernist architect of Marseille’s Cité Radieuse, on whose rooftop Clark shot 16-mm footage of his company dancing in 2008, cutting stark figures against a blue Mediterranean sky to produce a film that was shown here for the first time.

I’m sold on entry, and also pained. If the exhibition alleviates an immiseration that the lately closed clubs and dance studios cannot, it also accentuates the changed terms of contact initiated by the pandemic, even as real, incredible social spontaneity has materialized this year as in the ’80s, in different modes of anticapitalist protest. New Puritan’s canal-side soliloquies and tours through a recession-beaten London are juxtaposed with the carnivalesque moments of Because We Must, including one in a bar lined with lager drinkers straining to maintain socially sanctioned forms of machismo as ballerinas taunt them while dancing to the cockney classics “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts” and “Knees Up Mother Brown.”

Writing in these pages in 2008, Catherine Wood observed how Clark “stages his own image as a conflation of the gifted, make-believe superstar and Foucault’s ‘quarantined’ deviant, performing drag, illness, and decrepitude,” noting the way he “pulls back” from the sublime. What comes across now, in these pub scenes particularly, is one reason for pulling back—to stave off violence. Consider, for instance, this moment in Christopher Nealon’s introduction to the late Christopher Chitty’s Sexual Hegemony: Statecraft, Sodomy, and Capital in the Rise of the World System, which uses Marx and Foucault to describe the intertwined development of sexual and capitalist power structures across a five-hundred-year period. (Chitty mostly finished the book before his death in 2015, and Duke University Press published it last year.) Nealon commends Chitty’s recognition that homosexualization “is dialectically enmeshed with the reproduction of class struggle, in that it cuts across the divide between styles of gayness that ‘reek of commodity’ . . . and styles of gayness that are rooted in displacement from the reproduction of capital.” The lager drinkers point, perhaps, to the hard distinction between homosociality and homosexuality, and offer a context for “a patrician gayness that seeks release in contact with rough-hewn laboring masculinity,” demonstrating how the “two styles” are “enmeshed at every level, including that of erotic fantasy.” Clark only embodies aristocratic opulence to the extent that his training pulled him away from his upbringing on a farm in Aberdeenshire, but still, here, in this pub, the frisson of interclass contact threatens to erupt into a femme-phobic scene. Catharsis is offered by Leslie Bryant (Les Child) and Leigh Bowery as masters of ceremonies, poised in red evening dress at a grand piano for a parody duet of Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder’s “Ebony and Ivory.” Bowery’s extravagance sparkles on other screens at the Barbican, especially when he appears “Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross,” with a teapot spout about the waist saying fuck you to Englishness, demonstrating how a prosthetic can reduce the muscle power required to lift a leg through a grand battement.

Michael Clark, I Am Curious, Orange, 1988. Performance view, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, September 19, 1988. Foreground, from left: Michael Clark, Amanda King, Julie Hood. Background: The Fall. Photo: Dee Conway/Bridgeman Images.

“He knew how to send messages through clothes,” Clark has said of Bowery. “Having Leigh around made me want to keep dancing.” In reference to 1992’s Mmm . . . —in which Bowery played midwife to Clark’s mother, Bessie, as she “birthed” her son onstage to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring—exhibition invigilators wore T-shirts printed BORED? across the chest and ANGRY on the back, careful to maintain the strictly unidirectional flow of visitors around the galleries. At one point during my visit, an invigilator had to turn me around. How could I forget that art dances with death? I wanted to revisit a small collection of costumes gleaming jewellike against black walls in an upstairs corner: BodyMap’s unitard for Because We Must, featuring gold buttons on a white puff-top and gold trim on yellow leggings, was outshone only by the hot-pink sequins covering stirrup leggings and clustered around genitalia on hooded bodices—East End sari shop meets William Morris–style upholstery—conceived by Bowery for the work’s 1987 stage debut at Sadler’s Wells, the first of Clark’s choreographies in which he appeared, seven years after their initial encounter in the bathroom at the Cha Cha club on a Saturday night.

The phoenix myth that clings to Michael Clark stems from a four-year hiatus he took beginning in 1994, the year of Bowery’s and Jarman’s AIDS-related deaths, a period in which the dancer’s losses and addictions led him to move back in with Bessie up in Scotland. Sarah Lucas’s cigarette sculptures, encased in vitrines across from her Tits in Space, 2000–20, are ashen monuments to friendship and survival; when he was well enough to relocate to London, Clark moved in with Lucas, and while he was on the dole, he assisted with the pasting together of cigarettes. Critics typically associate Clark with explosive, Icarian nonconformity, but I was struck throughout the exhibition by how at the same time he has remained yoked—as a matter of survival—to the enduring institutions and rules of his lifetime thus far.

Even so, in a depressed and depressing British cultural landscape, Clark’s aesthetic and political commitments have made other paths look possible within straitened imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist, and patriarchal circumstances. In 1984, a year after he became choreographer-in-residence at London’s Riverside Studios, he assembled his first company. “I chose them because of their technical skill and also because I get on with them. We’re friends, that’s quite important, but also I knew that they could take care of themselves, and I didn’t want to put myself in a sort of father-figure role.” As he reveals in an hourlong suite of footage culled from the BBC and Channel 4 broadcast archives, his own father died when he was seventeen; he had to hide his Highland dancing from his schoolmates, and seeing David Bowie drape an arm around Mick Ronson in his 1972 Top of the Pops performance of “Starman” was “a revelation”: “I think I had only ever seen men make physical contact fighting before then, so I felt there might be other kindred spirits in the world somewhere.” Among this footage is dance documentation that places the development of a queer aesthetic into materialist perspective: a televised rehearsal of Do You Me? I Did (1984) showcases BodyMap’s unitard design, suggesting new contours of desire and connection through elongated sleeves and revealing cutouts. So, too, does Rights (1989), featuring pastel-pink leotards, blue veils, gloves that sag from the fingertips like raindrops, and meditative music. The latter samples Big Hard Excellent Fish’s 1990 track “Imperfect List,” in which the band’s Josie Jones reels through in her Liverpudlian accent a litany of wrongs—lost keys, class war, Radio 1, phony friend, the Royal Family, the Conservative Party, etc.—that accumulatively give shape to the lethal forces of the 1980s as well as today. The song simply concludes, “Where were you?”

“Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer” is on view through January 3.

Lizzie Homersham is a writer and editor based in London.