Michael Clark has always styled himself a shaker as well as a mover. He's done shock-value iconoclasm and kitted his dancers out with dildos. He's set classical steps to The Stranglers with aplomb. He's also made several comebacks in a bid to re-enter the mainstream, but it never felt convincing until now. To stage one Stravinsky ballet is an achievement. To stage two, a year apart, is impressive. But to package up all three in an evening of splendiferous live music and engrossing choreography is not much short of heroic. And not just on the part of Clark: credit is due to the Barbican for having the faith that he could do it.
In the course of three years he has staged O (his take on Apollo), then Mmm (his Rite of Spring), both reworkings of past Clark material. Now comes the new I Do (Les Noces) preceded by the previous two, which glance off each other like cut glass revealing new facets. In all of them, though, Clark has shrugged off any question of honouring the works' original themes. In O, he seems determined not to tell the story of the birth of the god Apollo. In Mmm any notion of ritual sacrifice is hard to detect. In I Do, despite the title, and a cheerful chucking of bridal bouquets, he doesn't really present a wedding beyond placing his dancers in pairs. What he does bow to, though, is the allusive power of the music. Just as Stravinsky touches archetypes, so does Clark.
In O, the spirit of antiquity blows through every bright,chiselled step. It's also magnified by Steven Scott's sleekly interactive set – a mirrored cubicle whose walls, as Ashley Chen's taut young god stretches his limbs to test their reach, multiplies them to infinity. Later, those same walls unfold to become a row of articulated mirror-doors which, at one emotive musical climax, all yawn open, blinding you with silvery, Apollonian light.
In Mmm, Clark reverts to oddness: dancers in ugly plastic skirts, metal clips glinting on their noses, scoot about stiffly. Clark himself makes a cameo appearance, his head poking through a lavatory seat, a reference, I'm guessing, to the more outlandish elements of the 1912 Rite, whose audience didn't just criticise, they laughed. The sacrificial dance at the end is a lonely affair: Melissa Hetherington, bare-breasted and vulnerable in big knickers and a Hitler moustache, flutters and strikes out interminably like an injured moth. No doubt finances dictated the piano-duet reduction of the score (played with muted and unusual care by Philip Moore and Andrew West) but it lends the dance an interesting bloodlessness.
How to segue from the dour savagery of Rite to music for a traditional Russian wedding? Clark shows us film of an ancient Igor Stravinsky, conducting – with mounting triumph and a tear in his rheumy eye – the final glorious stretch of his own Firebird. And it works, like the best kind of stag night, setting up an expectation of more of the same, blasting us into Clark's full-blooded response to Les Noces, a clangorous nuptial shout for full orchestra, 40-strong chorus and solo singers at full pelt.
His "bride" – the Amazonian Kate Coyne, now the finest exponent of Clark's style – makes her entry out of a Matryoshka doll, tottering on pointe, draped in a bobble-knit cape. By the end, when she and her dumbly compliant groom are united, she is entirely encased in a giant knitted egg.
This appears to be Clark's one comment on the institution of marriage: restrictive, time-consuming, fairly useless. But why would he care? He gives his all to the vibrant, sensuous, criss-crossing of the 12 bodies on stage, for once inspired, rather than oppressed, by the original work's pattern-making. As a dancer Clark was gifted with a flawless instinct for line. He's now poured it all into his choreography.
Further reading 'Stravinsky: A Creative Spring' by Stephen Walsh (Jonathan Cape)Reuse content