He will. He won't. He might. Anyone would think Michael Clark was some kind of fluff-headed diva, the number of times he changed his mind over whether to appear in his own comeback show at Sadler's Wells. Now approaching 40, the fallen angel of modern dance is said to have had qualms about his ability to meet the technical challenges he sets in his latest work. He was also curious to see how well his early post-punk material would stand up without his physical presence on stage. But would the fans still turn out if he blanked it? What's a Michael Clark event without Michael Clark?
In the event he fudged, flitting on and off at intervals soberly buttoned into a dark suit. He performed the goldfish-eating gag – a blink-or-you'll-miss-it cameo. He cut a caper or two, flashing briefly across the back of the stage. It was precious little, but it was enough. Because against all expectation the legendary bare-assed attitude of Clark's earliest dances, their gleeful perversity and ineffable poise, survive wondrously intact without him. And one can only put this down to an inherent quality that outlives their original shock-value: the cut-out buttocked costumes, the Union Jack bunting emerging from someone's rear, the other mildly anarchic goings on.
Truth is, after two decades of performance art we're no longer shocked or even surprised by these things. Even the belligerent metallic thrash of Mark E Smith and The Fall now strike the ear as a kind of anti-melodic questioning rather than an attack on decent citizenship. And in the care of the five svelte female dancers who now make up the Michael Clark Company, one comes away more struck by the choreography's cherishing of classical form than by the deviations from it.
Clark has split the show in two unequal parts, Before and After: The Fall. All the Before material is 1980s stuff, reworked around the five girls in place of the angel-faced boy wonder. I'd guess Clark's friend and designer, man mountain Leigh Bowery, also once featured in some of this early work too, and he died in 1994. So nothing is quite as it was. And how could it be? What comes across most strongly during the evening is not how much Clark has changed and grown up, but how his audience's expectations have.
The Sue Barker frilly tennis knickers, the faces painted with misplaced noses and mouths, the boobs, bums and other distractions are not, in the end, what you remember about the work. What you remember is the serenity and precision of the movement, its grace and felicity in the face of these grotesqueries. Which is, I suppose, the point at which the Before stops and the After begins.
The new material begins beautifully, with a sleek quartet set to Nina Simone's "Four Women", each dancer manipulating a fluorescent tube to form mysterious cyphers on the dark stage. But the next section descends into bathos. And if it meant to make a comment on sex and modern mores, it needed to do better than this. The much-anticipated "major art piece" by Sarah Lucas turns out to be a giant pink cast of Clark's fist and forearm, engineered so that it pumps up and down. Ho ho ho. Earlier we were treated to a man's back view (presumably Clark) as he masturbates cheerfully on video. The five dancers, in enormous droopy Y-fronts, hold classical balances and reel off streams of shapely ballet jumps to the ironic accelerando of "Zorba's Dance" which continues, as the prosthetic fist rises and falls, for the exact time it took the video man to climax.
Is this a joke? It's more of a shrug, I think. A means for Clark of shrugging off his own seriousness, shrugging off the pressure of finding a creative way forward. Some may find it endearing and self-deprecating, even funny. I found it desperately sad. There are only so many second chances you can give the man.
Yet Clark delivered an infinitely more clear-eyed statement than the Royal Ballet did the night before. Don Quixote, in Rudolf Nureyev's frothy, hyperactive 1966 version, was the production chosen by Ross Stretton to launch his reign as artistic director. Just in case any of us had been nursing the idea that there might be bracing change afoot in that institution, here was the clearest message of reassurance. Relax! it said to dinner-jacketed Bolly quaffers everywhere. Things are just as fusty, dusty and backward-looking as any conservative could wish.
One shudders to think what Kenneth MacMillan, 10 years dead and Stretton's predecessor twice removed, would have said, having striven to mine darker seams of human drama from the art form, pressing it into thrilling new shapes and exploring fresh areas of experience. OK, so Stretton's next production might go some way down that path. But the fact is that his first, his fanfare, his policy statement, is a well-worn re-run of a 19th-century warhorse.
It's an observable rule of life that anything billed as "witty" will be anything but. And parts of this Don Q, with its pantomime posturings, its Crackerjack! slapstick and brainless scamperings, are as dire as anything I have seen on the Opera House stage. This is not so much a fault of direction, I suspect, as a lack of conviction among the company that this is an enterprise worthy of their energy and talents.
Some satisfaction comes from the fine solo dancing: Tamara Rojo's sparky and impudent Kitri, brimming with life, and Johan Kobborg's unusually tender Basilio, playing her at her own game but wishing he didn't have to. How typical of this dancer to find a subtle dramatic slant where none otherwise exists.
Michael Clark Company: His Majesty's, Aberdeen (01224 641122), Sat and Sun, then touring; 'Don Quixote': Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000), in rep until 14 NovReuse content