new york

Michael Clark & Company, No Fire Escape in Hell

brooklyn academy of music

A rude boy of dance, British choreographer and dancer Michael Clark debuted in New York with his company in a clamor of frenzied hype. In his evening-length dance No Fire Escape in Hell Clark flaunted an ultrapunk look with earrings, futuristic fashions, and bleached, cropped hair, and loaded his choreography with equally aggressive trappings: dance in drag (Clark’s favorite costume: a tutu); upfront sexual imagery (a solo with dildo); and rock accompaniment from the far cutting edge, a “noise music” anthology sound track of grinding dissonance, distorted high volume, and furious rhythms.

To the cloistered dance world, this punky assault looked like the second wave of barbarians at the dance gates. To pancultural viewers, what shocked was not the brash, over-the-top business, but Clark’s ability to glue together classical modern-dance movement and supertrendy material by way of a lively theatrical sense of structure and showmanship. Clark showed dance-making methodology that shoved dance out of the hothouse and into the street.

Clark, who has danced with the Ballet Rambert under Richard Alston (a British Cunningham disciple), and also with Karole Armitage, contributed another significant element to a classic/punk equation: an English vaudeville sensibility in both material and dramatic structure. This campy dance-hall approach juices up the original formula’s bare-bones dialectical collision. And while Clark’s manic, farcical pacing, silent-movie pantomiming, and sketch structure may not have looked like “ideas,” they injected just the kind of freewheeling, all-out drama the merely conceptual fusion needed to come alive.

No Fire Escape involved two contrasting sections. Act 1, portentously labeled “Then,” presented a gallery of vignettes at breakneck speed. John and Yoko under a flag, a red-tutued devil woman, a squad of Keystone Kop-like bobbies with lewd ideas about what to do with their nightsticks—these and other recognizable subjects flew past in a welter of activity, accompanied by a similarly scattershot sound track that ranged from the nostalgia of the Mamas and the Papas and the Carpenters to the “now” sound of the Fall. Interspersed with these mime sketches were moments of ensemble dancing by Clark’s accomplished troupe and virtuosic solos by Clark himself. The dance movement vocabulary—even more distorted variations on Cunningham’s already much-altered balleticisms—weaved in and around the pantomimed action in the way that dance punctuates life.

The only dead spot in this whiz-bang dance variety show occurred when Clark nattered on about his tea in an overly campy limerick. But just when the mind tired of the constant action, nonstop music, and ever-changing costumes, there was an intermission, after which a completely opposite tack was taken. Act 2, even more portentously titled “Now Gods,” opened with a coup de théâtre static image: swathes of cloth trailed down like huge wings from the Lepercq Space’s high ceiling to enfold a group of dancers posed with backs to the audience, like otherworldly beings. When the neoliturgical dirge rock of the Yugoslavian group Laibach cranked up, a vision of Valhalla as a grim silver and black Metropolis unfolded. Here, Clark did everything he disdained in act 1: developed movement themes (especially in one powerful quartet for men), examined action and imagery for deeper possibilities, and created a serious mood.

In contrast to its antic setup, No Fire Escape’s monochromatic coda was a threnody of supernatural despair entirely appropriate to bleak English prospects. Clark’s daring theatrical conceptualism, coupled with his sheer kinesthetic gifts, made No Fire Escape in Hell a potent model for how dance can matter.

John Howell