Michael Clark: The man who put the punk into modern dance is now choreographing Stravinsky

Interview,Deborah Orr
Saturday 13 October 2007 00:00 BST

A two-foot border of mess runs round the edge of the big bright room, like a frame made of teenage chaos. Clothes, socks, bits of fruit, bottles and bottles of water, loads of Lucozade, a cornucopia of brightly coloured spiky latex balls, and a flight case brimming with Elastoplast, have all been hastily chucked down and kicked to the side of the furiously fluorescent space.

The light flatters no one, but even so, it's a surprise to see quite how messily undone a number of the 12 people ranged around the room in straggly bunches are looking. Sweaty and pink-faced from exertion, dressed in wrinkly leg-warmers or limp-looking sweatshirts, earnest and oddly subdued, mostly these people look mildly confused. Their choreographer, Michael Clark, doesn't look confused though, or sound it. He just seems endlessly calm and patient.

"Do you think we can get that far?" he asks of a big-boned, sharp-faced, beetroot-hued woman with shoulders like a wrestler's, who is having some trouble as she tries to squeeze her contorted body under the arms of one young woman, while grasping the hand of another. She gasps out a laugh, in a firmly negative reply.

"Da, da, da, da, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum," chants Clark as he runs through the steps. "I think this is the one we should be doing. I think we should do this one from now on. Let's look at it on the DVD."

The motley crew all gather round a television, craning forward in a stressed-looking tableau of concentration, and gaze intently at the screen as the muffled strains of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring struggle tinnily to fill the room. Then they all stalk back to the centre of the big black rubber matting, and form themselves into a straggling chain.

"One extra leg ..." says Clark to the woman, who is instantly recognisable as one of the most physically dominating of his regular dancers, Kate Coyne. "One more leg that goes round ... How are you doing down the other end?"

He glides down, and asks a young man: "Is that the right place? Don't you want to be later? I would imagine being something like there." He places a hand on the dancer's body, then says: "Now. What has that to turn into?" The guy starts to show him.

"Oh, but it's hurting my head," says the woman who's next in line as the position is achieved.

"Oh," says Clark. "Oh, I see."

Then, just as you're thinking, "If this guy can make a ballet out of this lot in four weeks time, then I'm Rudolf Nureyev," it all turns into something amazing, a sustained and gorgeous wave of weaving bodies, working together like they are the most intricate of cogs in a heavenly machine, tooled with such discipline and accuracy that nothing could ever go wrong. It's like alchemy of the flesh, so suddenly and sinuously perfect, that it's a shock and a release, even to the observer. Suddenly the mood in the room has changed, and everyone looks upbeat and satisfied.

"Let's show Deborah some of the new stuff," Clark tells his company, and after a couple of incomprehensible directions, they are dancing to Stravinsky's Les Noces, and the air is possessed by fierce and confident limbs, swooping and bounding in a strange tortured flight of angry intensity.

Les Noces will complete Clark's Stravinsky Project, which he has been working on at the Barbican for three years now. The first, O, which premiered in 2005, was based on Apollo. The second, Mmm, took as its inspiration the Rite of Spring. This new one, I Do, tackles Les Noces, Stravinsky's exploration of the rituals surrounding a traditional Russian peasant wedding, and it will be added to the other two and performed as a demanding and highly anticipated trilogy at the end of this month.

Both O and Mmm had been produced by Clark in other versions in the early 1990s, but I Do is completely new. Clark has only been working with some of the dancers for a couple of weeks. He hasn't yet heard the choir of 40 who will be performing live as part of the performance, although he will be remedying that in a couple of hours. He seems fairly confident that it will all come together. "That was kind of bitty," Clark says later, of the afternoon's rehearsal. "But there's four weeks to go, on Wednesday, and I know how long I need. Though what I've got to say about marriage I can't imagine. Why would I be interested in that?"

It's a little white lie, this remark, a small and uncharacteristic swagger of bravado, a nod to the exuberant days of out and outrageous gay abandon, when Clark took up a chainsaw, strapped on a dildo, and told the Royal Ballet, at 18, that he was grateful for the training they had given him, but that he wouldn't be joining their dull old company, because he was a punk and he chose sex and drugs and rock'*'roll. Or something like that.

Anyway, Les Noces won't even be the first ballet about marriage Clark has choreographed. In 1984, at the Edinburgh Festival, he electrified the city with his ballet, Morag's Wedding, in a flurry of tartan and bawdiness and deafening, exhilarating noise. "Yeah," he says, in the first of many references to his youth in rural Aberdeenshire. "I'd only been to Scottish weddings at that time. I haven't been to many weddings since."

He's thought about weddings a lot though, as becomes apparent as he discusses the libretto to Les Noces. "It's full of anguish about getting married; in the piece the woman's dreading it. This is what's going on. Different conversations are heard in the music, different perspectives on marriage. There's a couple of really sad passages where the parents are, like, not wanting to lose their daughter. She's having her hair plaited, tied. And it's all to do with control. She doesn't want to leave her family and the freedom, really ..."

Clark talks of this with intensity, I guess because he has always chosen freedom, no matter how hard that choice has been. When he was 13, and won his place at the Royal Ballet School, he cried all the way there on the train, frightened out of his wits, and comforted by his older brother. " I'd been such a mummy's boy," he said. "It's a wonder that she let me go."

Yet having arrived there, he was still restless, disappointed that instead of being at the heart of London, he was stuck out in Richmond, heavily supervised, as a child away from home ought to be. Again, he chose freedom, or as much freedom as he could grab, sneaking off into the city by himself.

"My first experiences of being outside the Royal Ballet School, or of what you'd call the other side, was of punk. The contrast with my studies was so great. I had to pretend to be ... To get outside I had to get someone to write me these notes, a fictitious auntie, so that I could get out of school and into London and go and see bands ... Partly I was terrified that I'd be found out, but I had to do it even though it was frightening.

"I remember being stuck out in the East End somewhere, going to see Siouxsie and the Banshees, and all these skinheads being there. It was the day before an Anti-Nazi League march, and they were all going on the anti-Nazi march because they were all Nazis and were going to cause trouble. So I had to, like, blend in. Not pretend to be one of them exactly, but being with them quietly, taking it all in. It felt like a Jekyll and Hyde existence. And then going back to school and pretending to be this very disciplined, focused person, well, which I was ..."

This particular story is instructive, because Clark has been accused of employing empty, nihilistic shock in his work on many occasions, sometimes because of his use of Nazi imagery – which persists in the Rite of Spring piece. Yet here is the link, intensely rooted in what must have been a formative experience, one that has stayed with him for a long time.

It's clear that the intensity of the contrast in these early adventures has formed the core of his work ever since. Clark's unique style has always centred on the struggle between the more jagged edges of popular counterculture, to the pain of those early mentors who were so captivated by his brilliance as a ballet dancer, and to the glee of his fans, who didn't know much about ballet but knew that they liked to see it being pushed to its anarchic limits and beyond.

Clark's life has been a series of escapes, first from rural Scotland, then from the Royal Ballet, who by all accounts were devastated at the loss of the boy they regarded as having the potential to become one of the all-time great classical dancers. At 18, Clark joined Ballet Rambert, but escaped from there too, because despite the acclaim he received, he felt he was "somebody else's muse". A fecund period as resident choreographer at London's Riverside Studios, at just 20, saw him stage something like a dozen works, but even that couldn't contain him. He set up his own company at 22, and despite major setbacks – a retirement in 1988 due to heroin addiction, and another, longer withdrawal with depression from 1994 to 1997 – he has mostly managed to keep it on the road.

Clark talks about his drug use in familiar terms, the terms peddled by every addicted artist. It's about the only unoriginal paragraph that passes his lips all evening. "I still think those are valuable experiences, even unpleasant ones, they're all useful. I always blame ... well blame isn't the word, but I always think it's part of my job as well, to find out about those things and feed it all back into the work somehow, so that's my justification for it."

I suggest that the reasons behind it all were more banal, not just the pressure of the fervid attention he attracted at such an early age, but the rather telling fact that his dad was an alcoholic, and he probably had a genetic predilection. He admits this may be the case, but defends his father as well. His father, he explains, managed his alcoholism well, leaving bottles at strategic places round the farm he'd reluctantly inherited. Also, and crucially, his father had been deeply unhappy in his work. He always encouraged his sons to go for whatever they wanted in life, and to follow their passions. He was more pleased than many Scottish fathers would have been when his boy started winning cups for country dancing, then wanted to go to ballet lessons in Aberdeen. His mother, he says, now claims that she had always wanted to be a dancer herself. "If I'd have known I was living out her fantasies at the time, though, I'd probably have rejected it all."

There are other tales from the early and intense periods of his life – when he first began seriously to dedicate himself to dance – that illuminate the content of his work over the years. He speaks of the sheer quiddity of being in London, having previously lived on his father's farm. "It was the time of the IRA when I got to London," he says, "And somehow that stuff hadn't been very real. It was the kind of thing that you heard about on the news. But actually hearing a bomb – it was a really scary but also exciting thing. I wasn't aware, in Aberdeen, of Catholics and Protestants for example, even though I later found out that in other parts of Scotland sectarianism was rife."

All this eventually went into his 1988 ballet I Am Curious, Orange, which was commissioned to mark the William and Mary tercentenary, and featured dancing citrus fruit, windmill headdresses, and a score from Clark's long-time collaborator, Mark E Smith and The Fall. Smith had been one of the people who had come into Clark's orbit just when he was starting out, and for a number of years the men worked together on all of Clark's productions. There was an acrimonious fall-out, though, that ended up with Smith taking Clark to court. "It imploded," says Clark. "It got complicated. He was just playing games about who owns what, but it wasn't very nice."

It's clear, even though Clark has a quite a major obsession with Stravinsky on the go, that he misses Smith and misses working collaboratively with a musician. "I still listen to The Fall, of course," he says rather wistfully. "But I haven't met a living composer like Stravinsky who's out there ..."

And anyway, his passion for Stravinsky seems far from spent, despite the fact that Clark has been working with his scores for 15 years now, on and off. He tussled for a while with the notoriously uncooperative estate of TS Eliot, longing to make a ballet that the two men had discussed working on together. "I tried to do something with Eliot's Four Quartets and the amount of justification they wanted as to what I was going to do to it ... I know that Eliot and Stravinsky were talking about doing something together: Stravinsky was going to write music for the Four Quartets. But that wasn't enough. That wasn't interesting enough. It's a shame, really."

Considering that Stravinsky is long dead, Clark's relationship with the composer manages to be fairly intense, involving a tireless pursuit of all possible clarity. "I have someone who helps me count the music, because the way Stravinsky chose to write it, it's really not how you would naturally count music. I'm sure each time signature's got a nature of it's own. I'm sure that he was choosing a shift in time signature for a very good reason.

"The reason I took it on, is that it's upping the ante, because there's this amazing piece that already exists and is untouchable. These last three years, these three pieces that I've done at the Barbican, are all existing pieces by previous choreographers, which means I've been compared continually to these other people and that can get a bit ... after a while you think it'll be nice to do something completely my own, so I'm looking forward to that."

In truth, though, Clark doesn't really want to be on his own, he just wants to be in charge. One of the things that thrills him is the ability to attract good people to work with him, and that has always been a driving passion. "From the start, because of the nature of the work, I got very good people, who also chose not to be in those more formal companies. They were committed."

The people Clark gathered around him were often not dancers. As well as forming an early relationship with Smith, and other musicians like Laibach and Wire, Clark also worked with figures from the fashion industry, forming a particularly close association with Stevie Stewart and David Holah, of Bodymap, and with a number of visual artists, including Charles Atlas, who still designs his sets. His most extravagant collaborator at this time was the performance artist Leigh Bowery, whose influence was crucial to his own artistic development.

"I strived for a long time to uneducate myself, because punk was about working with very little. But I was really well trained and I had to find a way to work with that rather than against it. I found I could do better working with people who didn't dance, like Leigh Bowery. But Leigh was absolutely determined to do everything really well. He wouldn't want to do something badly. His appreciation of the technical content of what I did was a real eye-opener to me, because I thought that in order to communicate with people who didn't know about dance one had to simplify things; Leigh taught me that you didn't, that it's not about that."

There is a great deal of simplicity to Clark, though, not in the way that he organises his work, but in the way he organises his life. He lives very modestly, in a small flat with his boyfriend of the past 10 years, and the money that keeps his company going is largely the fruit of private patronage. Friends in the art world, led by the formidable agent Sadie Coles, organised an auction of their artworks at Christie's last year, the revenue from which will support the company for one more year.

After that, Clark hasn't a clue what might happen – to him or to his company.

"There's a core of three or four who have been with me for longer, but that's as big as it's been. Some people have just started with me, and will stay to perform I Do. There's just so much more possible with more people and I'm allowing myself this moment of ... indulgence, if you like, but to sustain that many people full-time, I couldn't afford it, you know."

I find it amazing, really, the way that Clark sticks to his guns, always ploughing his own distinctive furrow. He is 45, and his own career as a dancer is essentially over – he's had trouble with his knees for years. He is celebrated but isolated, considered important, but in a perilous way he is artistically homeless. And he just doesn't care about that, any more than he did when he was 20. Forever controversial, he rides it, considering it part of what he is. He embodies the maxim that when the critics are divided, the artist is at peace with himself. All those who believe that he sets out to shock, could not be more wrong. He just sets out.

Michael Clark's 'Stravinsky Project', featuring all three of his works, 'O', 'Mmm' and 'I Do', is at the Barbican Theatre, London EC2, from 31 October to 10 November. For tickets, call the box office on 0845 120 7550

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