‘Everything Crossed Over’: Michael Clark’s Cheeky World of Dance

By Roslyn Sulcas

The choreographer and dancer Michael Clark in 1986.
The choreographer and dancer Michael Clark in 1986.Credit...Richard Haughton

The choreographer and dancer Michael Clark in 1986.Credit...Richard Haughton

LONDON — Dancer, choreographer, ex-heroin addict, prodigal son, perfectionist, art-world darling, club-world star: Michael Clark was for a long time the enfant terrible of British dance. Today he is 58 and the subject of a comprehensive exhibition, “Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer,” at the Barbican Art Gallery that surveys his career and extensive collaborations.

The visual splendor of the exhibition, which opens Wednesday, vibrantly displays the pop-culture thrills of Mr. Clark’s arrival on the scene in London in the early 1980s. With eye-popping graphics (“Enjoy God’s Disco” reads an early flyer for his company in Coca-Cola red and white), film installations and high-flyer art-world contributions, the exhibition evokes a moment in which dance wove itself into the fabric of a newly charged youth culture.

ImageSilke Otto-Knapp’s watercolor “Group (Formation),” 2020.
Silke Otto-Knapp’s watercolor “Group (Formation),” 2020.Credit...via Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne; greengrassi, London
Mr. Clark in a publicity photograph for “Mmm…” (1992).Credit...Hugo Glendinning
“Mmm…” was his take on “The Rite of Spring.”Credit...Hugo Glendinning

“The Young British Artist crowd swung into town, and Michael was part of it,” the gallerist Sadie Coles said. “He was in Peter Greenaway’s ‘Prospero’s Books,’ dancing in a warehouse in King’s Cross, at the new St. John’s restaurant, which the art crowd frequented. Everything crossed over.”

The exhibition, said Florence Ostende, the show’s curator, is shaped as “a love letter” from Mr. Clark’s artist friends and collaborators, showing his work through the multiple guises of film, photography, painting, graphic work, costumes and design. “So many exhibitions rely on archival material, and sometimes it can bury the artist,” Ms. Ostende said. “I wanted a very live constellation of voices.” That includes Charles Atlas, Jarvis Cocker, Elizabeth Peyton, Sarah Lucas, Peter Doig and Wolfgang Tillmans, among others.

Mr. Clark’s work never quite took off in the United States. (In The New York Post, Clive Barnes dismissed Mr. Clark’s company’s Brooklyn Academy of Music debut in 1986, saying he was trying “to shock the unshockable, surprise the unsurprised and make whoopee on an almost deflated cushion.”) But it’s hard to overstate his impact on London dance in the early 1980s, when fresh out of the Royal Ballet School and a stint with Ballet Rambert, he began to choreograph.

Teaming up with scenesters like the performance artist Leigh Bowery (a frequent model for Lucian Freud), the experimental design duo BodyMap and rock bands like the Fall and Wire, Mr. Clark became known for his provocative, surrealist shows. Vaudeville, camp and comedy were all part of the mix. He and his dancers wore costumes with cut outs displaying their buttocks, used giant dildos as props, danced in syringe-pierced bodysuits and mingled with non-dancers onstage.

Leigh Bowery and Rachel Auburn in Charles Atlas’s film “Hail the New Puritan.” Credit...via Charles Atlas and Luhring Augustine, New York
Mr. Clark in the film.Credit...Alexander James
With Ellen van Schuylenburch in “Hail the New Puritan.”Credit...Richard Haughton

But the dancing was inventive and rigorous, with strong influences from Merce Cunningham and the Cecchetti ballet technique that Clark was schooled in, as well as from Karole Armitage, whose company he worked with in New York in 1982. It displayed the clean lines, speed and precision of his ballet training along with surprising off-balance tilts, pelvic thrusts that propel the legs and sudden shifts of weight.

Critics mostly hated the costumes and music around the movement, but young audiences adored the spectacle. “He got curious Londoners from every walk of life,” said Michael Morris, who presented “Mmm …,” Mr. Clark’s take on “The Rite of Spring,” in a King’s Cross warehouse in 1992. “I can still remember the packed audience, the sense of event that Michael was always so brilliant at creating.”

These were Mr. Clark’s golden years. In 1989 he started a relationship with the choreographer Stephen Petronio. In his memoir, “Confessions of a Motion Addict,” Mr. Petronio writes that when the pair were struggling to create a performance for the Anthony d’Offay gallery in London, he insisted “that we perform the only real thing that we have a serious daily practice in: sex.” (Mr. Petronio called it “Heterospective.”)

Lorena Randi and Victoria Insole in “Before and After: The Fall” (2001) in Berlin. Credit...Andrea Stappert

By the early 1990s, Mr. Clark had flamed out, struggling with alcohol, heroin and, later, methadone addictions. He went to live with his mother in rural Aberdeen, Scotland, where he was born and where, at age 4, he started taking Highland dance classes with his sisters. In 1998, he returned to London to create a work, “current/SEE,” a process documented by the filmmaker Sophie Fiennes in “The Late Michael Clark,” on show in the Barbican exhibition. (It begins with endless answerphone messages from journalists and others, trying to contact Mr. Clark.)

Since then, he has remained an important, but intermittent presence in the British dance world, continuing to collaborate with an eclectic mix of artists, fashion designers and musicians, and becoming an associate artist at the Barbican in 2005.

“The combination of drug problems and personal issues meant he couldn’t sustain a career and hasn’t had the impact his talent deserved,” said Debra Craine, the chief dance critic of The London Times. “But when he came back after his hiatus, you felt he was more interested in the dance; in some of the later work, everything is sculpted, nothing is wasted. There are very few people who can make dance that clean and profound.”

Mr. Clark declined to be interviewed for this article, but in an interview with Ms. Ostende in the excellent exhibition catalog, he offers a succinct take on his art. “You are aware,” he says, “that, for me, my work is a matter of life and death?”

A number of the contributors to the exhibition and close associates talked about or emailed their memories of working with Mr. Clark and offered reflections on their collaborations and relationships with him. Here are edited excerpts from those interviews.

“Michael Clark," a 2009 portrait by Elizabeth Peyton. Credit...Elizabeth Peyton; via Sadie Coles HQ, London

Peter Doig, artist I had known Michael from the mid-80s, through the design duo BodyMap. His works were electrifying. There was an irreverence, but also a connection to hard, hard work. He would bring in extra players, like Leigh Bowery or his mum, but nothing was frivolously done, everything was rigorous.

Charles Atlas, filmmaker and video artist I met Michael at a gallery opening in London in 1981 when I was touring with Merce Cunningham. He was in a couple of films of mine, and then in 1984 I did the lighting for him and Ellen van Schuylenburch in a duet called “New Puritans,” which was on his company’s first program. I have done his lighting ever since. I love Michael’s work, and I love him.

Susan Stenger, musician The day Princess Diana died I was recording with my band in an old synagogue in east London. Cerith Wyn Evans was in the band, and he brought Michael along. He stretched out on a bench and the whole time we were playing I thought he was asleep, but afterward he asked me if I’d be interested in working together, and it was clear he had been immersed in it and taken in all the details. To find a new person who I had barely met, and immediately felt such an affinity for, was a beautiful shock.

Charles Atlas Michael marched to his own drummer from the start. He was independent and making work at 21. I could see the rigor and ballet form in his work, but people in general couldn’t see it because he was thumbing his nose, wearing platform shoes and outrageous costumes. He got a rock ‘n’ roll audience; there were always club people at his shows, his friends, and he often included them as part of the pieces. But the work was always crafted as well as entertaining.

Sophie Fiennes He was coming out of the Thatcher era and an anti-establishment wave was a big part of that time, but Michael was just in the present moment; even Stravinsky was in the present for him. I was drawn to the cottage-industry feel of Michael’s work. No one was thinking about careers and brands, they were just in Leigh’s council flat, rolling along, cooking something up.

Wolfgang Tillmans’s “man with clouds,” from 1998.Credit...Wolfgang Tillmans; via Galerie Buchholz Berlin/Cologne; Maureen Paley, London/Hove; David Zwirner, New York

Charles Atlas He was always easy. As a choreographer, he was very trusting. I was used to the kind of collaboration with Merce Cunningham where you do your work independently. With Michael, we would talk more about what I was thinking, but essentially he left me to do the best I could do.

Elizabeth Peyton, artist I think where other people make a big deal about certain things sitting side by side, for instance punk and classical ballet, for Michael this is natural — all coming from the same place — all can exist together.

There is an attractive freedom to that. A lot of possibilities.

Wolfgang Tillmans, photographer I don’t feel at a loss in his performances, even if I don’t understand what they mean. He confronts an absurd world with actions that are equally inexplicable. The secret is that they are never random.

Given how enigmatic he is, and how in control of everything he does, I was surprised how easygoing and open he was when I photographed him. He allowed me to put him in unexpected places and contexts, and he was very playful with it. In that way it felt genuinely collaborative.

Elizabeth Peyton He can sit classical ballet inside the shine of David Bowie’s “Low” period red hair — that’s exciting!

Silke Otto-Knapp, artist He never quite gives in to the music. It’s not like a rock concert where you are absorbed by the sound. Here you are also aware of the dance language, wanting to understand it. Dance and music exist in parallel, and each have a powerful effect, which is rare.

Susan Stenger After the first rehearsal together, I just knew it was going to work. We were completely on the same wavelength about music; he loves Stravinsky and Satie, but also Bowie, Nina Simone, Iggy Pop. He didn’t make distinctions between high and low art. They were all part of his musical world.

Mr. Clark at the opening of a Derek Jarman show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, in London, in 1984.Credit...Steve Pyke

Sadie Coles I think in terms of radically rethinking what dance could be, how to present it and where to present it, he had a huge influence on people like Akram Khan and the Ballet Boyz. He was the precursor for a lot of approaches to presenting dance that people tried later.

Wolfgang Tillmans Michael is interested in so many other things, and that creates criticisms of a lack of purity, of a watering-down or choosing an easier option. But I don’t think it’s simpler. He may not offer the pure movement, but he creates a contextual tension that is interesting for his audience. It delights many and frustrates others, but that’s what makes the work so exciting.

Peter Doig I would argue that Michael is one of the most important British artists of our generation. He introduced a whole audience who may not have been interested in contemporary dance to the form.

Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer

Oct. 7 to Jan. 3 at the Barbican Art Gallery, London; barbican.org.uk.