Dance: Wonder boy returns

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The Independent Culture
Michael Clark Birmingham Rep Royal Ballet Sadler's Wells, N1

For many years I've had on my shelf a book called Life at the Royal Ballet School. The 1979 text may be a bit outdated, but it's fascinating to leaf through the photos spotting junior versions of today's successful artists. There's a pubescent Deborah Bull demonstrating port-de-bras; there's Nicola Tranah, correcting her plie in class. On almost every other page, there's a boy - about 17 - with an angelic face, a satyr's neck and shoulders, and an exquisitely beautiful line. No name is given, but you could spot that luminous talent in the dark. It's Michael Clark. Ballet's genius. Ballet's tragedy. The one who threw it all away, did his own thing, then threw that away too.

After Mmm ... in 1992, and O, in 1994, little was heard or seen of Clark. Rumours abounded: he'd had a breakdown, he was injured, he was detoxing. In fact, all were true. Clark has spent the past four years living with his mother in the remote Scottish fishing village where he grew up. The experience, he says, reminded him of why he first wanted to dance.

Now 36, the Michael Clark currently on tour is a more centred, sober creature than of old. Gone is the beastie boy who put his mother on stage in a grass skirt. This work is almost puritan in its lack of gimmickry. Wearing stark black designs by Hussein Chalayan, four dancers (Clark, plus Dominik Schoetschel, Lorena Randi and Kate Coyne) perform on a stage that's bare but for a gargantuan sound system arranged like Stonehenge. The titles of the pieces give nothing away: what do you make of Y, OR and THE? But the movement itself is clear as glass.

When it's slow - when Clark takes the stage alone - it has a quality of contemplative precision, as if he's logging the minutest action of each muscle in turn. If anyone else did this it could be deadly; Clark's physical beauty and control hold an audience rapt. At one point, from a slow shoulder stand, he parts his legs in scissors, then clasps the instep of one elegantly flexible foot with the toes of the other. It's an action that suggests not so much a monkey's grip, but something rather meaningful, almost spiritual.

At speed, when all four performers dance in unison, there's a thrilling energy in the fractured angularity of the steps, the whirring turbine arms and surprising classical spins. The music, from Susan Stenger's band Big Bottom, is supplied by no less than five bass guitars, which blast away in grungey unison at rock riffs. Sometimes the musical line blurs into a wall of sound so loud it pins you to your seat. It made me fear for the number of permed ladies in the audience, if not for the nose-ring wearers who made up the other half. But they all seemed highly satisfied. You see what you want to see in Michael Clark: classical alchemist, post-punk renegade, cherub, devil. The main thing is, he's back.

In the same week, the Royal Ballet opened its season at the new Sadler's Wells and put its very best foot forward despite uncertainties over its future. Outside, ticket-holders were leafletted with warnings of the company's imminent closure. Tomorrow, staff and dancers vote whether to accept the lousy new contracts they've been offered. It all bodes very ill, and yet ... In this generous mixed bill the dancers have rarely looked better; Kenneth MacMillan's Concerto, with its ranks of pony-stepping dancers in sunny citrus colours, really sparkled.

It also threw light on some splendid talents which don't often get a chance to shine. Mara Galeazzi, replacing the injured Leanne Benjamin, was especially fine in the adagio. It demands nerves of steel from the ballerina as with infinite slowness she folds and unfolds her body into a series of arabesques on point, with Shostakovich's limpid piano line meandering round her. Michael Nunn made a discreet and worthy partner, and didn't let her wobble once.

Being away from the Opera House does seem to do the Royal good. Anthony Dowell never dared programme the best of the annual "Dance Bites" pieces there, for fear they couldn't live up to its grand scale. At the Wells, however the three short commissions from youngish choreographers sat very comfortably indeed. Room of Cooks, Ashley Page's brooding ballet noir, fairly bristled with pent-up sexual violence. William Tuckett's Puirt-a-beul displayed a deliciously light touch; and Cathy Marston's Words Apart broke all the rules about not putting matt black costumes against a black stage to produce a knotty tangle of a pas de deux which left you marvelling that Deborah Bull and Jonathan Cope got out of it alive.

Michael Clark: Bath Theatre Royal (01225 448844), Mon; Sheffield Crucible (0114 2769922), Fri & Sat; then touring.