Michael Clark, Barbican, London

The dancer who thought he was God
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The Independent Culture

When a former wild child arrives at middle age and decides to revise his past mistakes, the attempt is not usually of interest to major theatres. Yet something about the dancer Michael Clark's spectacular fall from grace, his years in the wilderness, the writer's block, the drugs, seems to have touched a chord in the most hard-nosed arts administrators. Failed deadlines and disappointing comebacks are forgiven: everyone wants 43-year-old Clark to succeed. There is no dancer-choreographer alive who so naturally treads the line between the rigour of classical dance and the reckless glamour of rock and fashion. Clark may need dance, but British dance needs Clark even more.

Hence the grand act of faith by Dance Umbrella and the Barbican in commissioning a three-year Clark-Stravinsky project, largely a revision of works created by Clark in the early Nineties, edited, expanded or even simply completed, and granted the legitimacy of a live orchestra. Part One, premiered at the Barbican on Tuesday and due to tour in the New Year, is his take on Balanchine's Apollo. Titled O, this is a piece which, when shown in its first version at Brixton Academy in 1994, looked less like a homage to 20th-century ballet's most sacred text and more like the hubris of a dancer who thought he was God. Those who saw it will not have forgotten the entrancing sight of a lithe Clark, swaddled in white, disporting himself inside a mirrored cube, his image flashing on every surface.

An older, chastened Clark takes a more objective stand. For a start, he has had to pass the title role to a younger dancer, or rather several younger dancers who take turns as Apollo. He has also bowed to the pure spirit of George Balanchine's 1928 original, while still claiming some territory as his own. In fact Clark's signature is writ large in every bright, chiselled step, in the cool certainty of every gesture, and in the overarching sense of stillness, achieved by the six white-clad dancers at goodness knows what effort of technical discipline. On a stage sleekly set with a row of mirrored doors, the movements acquire a nobility that sits beautifully with the theme, yet Clark seems determined not to tell Apollo's story.

He wilfully obscures the identities of the muses so you can't tell which represents poetry, music or dance. He opts not to show Apollo's maturing from child to fully-fledged god, and though he does concede a powerful solo for Kate Coyne as Apollo's labouring mother, only the sharpest-eyed will have spotted the "baby" male dancer who briefly lands up between her knees. The choreographer recently stated that he hates exclusive art, yet O would surely be impenetrable without some background knowledge.

What does come as a revelation, however, is Stravinsky's 1928 score. Twenty-two-year-old Robin Ticciati coaxes the most intoxicating sounds from the Aurora Orchestra strings, teasing single melodic strands from the rich, six-part texture with the skill of a master weaver, and finessing the overall swell with a sculptor's care. Though I've heard and loved this music a hundred times, its oddly matched material - the modal Greek tunes, the French baroque dances, the café waltzes and foxtrots - have never seemed so sweetly melded or convincing.

The evening started less politely with the growl of Iggy Pop, the volume turned so high that even the Barbican's huge speakers balked (a deliberate effect I think). Since Stravinsky's Apollo lasts only half an hour, Clark had provided a companion piece called OO. Is that as in "oooo" or "uh-oh"? my friend enquired. In the event it turned out to be a sop to Clark's punk-era following. To aggressively loud and grating music from the late 1970s, Clark sent his seven dancers out in threes and fours, clad in sinister black eye patches and black-back unitards that appeared to slice their bodies vertically in half.

Clark himself makes a brief, tame appearance in OO as a white-suited ringmaster, twirling a glass crook. The fans whoop their delight, but frankly he'd have done better to stay in the wings. Again, the joy of Clark's choreography is its unironic take on classroom technique: four boys doing entrechats to a thumping bass beat, three girls turning slowly in perfectly matched attitude... there's nothing trickier to bring off, and they do. For a glimpse of Clark's best work, however, the real young-genius stuff, you must catch the revival of Swamp, on Rambert's tour.

Touring in Jan and Feb ( www.michaelclarkcompany.com)

jenny.gilbert@independent.co.uk

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