When Jarvis Cocker snarls the words, "This is gonna be a heavy nite", you want to believe him. But truth be told, Michael Clark's latest meshing of stripped-down, Britart-cool ballet moves and hot, noisy rock is a touch on the lite side. It's one thing to leave your audience with room for more, quite another to leave them half starved.
Which isn't to say that the creation baldly titled New Work 2012 isn't of a quality to match anything Clark has done in the past 30 years. For a start, it is purged of distractions. Gone are the bare bottoms and goofy gimmicks (well, almost: Clark, at 49, still allows himself a scuttle-on role in a woolly wig). What's left is a fierce concentrate of what can only be termed nu-classicism. Hips display a savage turnout, arms whir like windmills or cradle imaginary fitness balls. Bare feet are pointed to extremes – who knew that five toes could field so many knuckles? Clark's eight dancers, many of them long-term collaborators, are beacons of technical rigour.
The joy comes from the aesthetic collision of music and movement. In the first half, the vocal harmonies of Scritti Politti spread a sweet, fondant sauce over what is essentially an ascetic ballet workout. In the second, the live presence of the band Relaxed Muscle, fronted by a whip-wielding, ghoul-faced Cocker, transforms a dance event into a gig, further enlivened by slinky, zebra-striped costumes by Stevie Smith from Body Map.
Whether swinging three-legged stools between their thighs, or twitching pelvises back and forth while sitting on them, Clark's dancers hint at sexual deviancy while holding fast to their formal froideur. Take note, Crazy Horse cabaret: this is the real sexy deal. The only pity is that this show is so short. I longed for a button marked "replay".
Ballet's bad boy crops up again, if only in spirit, in Rambert's autumn programme. Richard Alston's Dutiful Ducks was originally made to show off the prodigious abilities of the 17-year-old Clark, accompanied by a stuttering sound-poem that makes comic play with the word d-d-d-ducks. At Sadler's Wells, the seven-minute solo was embodied by Rambert's Dane Hurst with just the right balance of dudeworthy nonchalance and technical wow.
As the evening's high point, though, it was narrowly bested by Merce Cunningham's Sounddance, a work that undoes everything you thought you knew about 1970s modernism not only by being gripping, funny, and harum-scarum fast, but by featuring a backdrop of gold fabric swags. Swags!
Its obverse, nicely judged, is supplied by Paul Taylor's 1985 Roses, whose response to the full-on lyricism of Wagner's Siegfried Idyll (gloriously played by Rambert's pit band) has restraint enough to break your heart. Too bad the new work on the programme, Marguerite Donlon's gluey Labyrinth of Love, was an out and out dud – too many fancy video effects, too many words, too many notes, just too, too much. Next time, Rambert, why not ask Mr Clark?
Michael Clark: Barbican (020-7638 8891) 23-27 Oct, Belfast Festival (02890 971197) 3 & 4 Nov; Rambert: Theatre Royal, Plymouth (01752 267222) 24-26 Oct, and touring
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