"Welcome back, Michael," a spectator cried. Michael Clark, the wild boy of dance, who was too beautiful to live and too young to die (but as a junkie probably almost did), took four years out in the 1990s to cleanse himself away from the eyes of publicity. Actually, he has been back since 1998, when he staged current/SEE, a radical return to the Cecchetti fundamentals of his Royal Ballet School training. This was generally interpreted as a gingerish Clarkian toe in the water, so a lot hangs on the first show he has mounted since then.
Before and After: the Fall is a retrospective of his early work, twinned with a new piece constructed in collaboration with Sarah Lucas, whose own BritArt creativity pegs her as Clark's soul- mate. The Fall therefore refers to Clark's personal collapse, as well as to the rock group, led by Mark E Smith, whose ear-mugging songs accompanied many of Clark's 1980s pieces, such as New Puritans. This was punk ballet, a young man's two-fingered, bum-baring, druggy challenge to convention and propriety. The late Leigh Bowery designed the buttock-exposing costumes and shag-haired platinum wigs. Trojan, another deceased clubland casualty, invented fried-egg sunflowers. All these make a return, in the extracts reworked and glued together by Clark.
How would Clark's style look, two decades on? Wincingly juvenile in its rebellious rudery? How would it look when Clark, at 39, has decided for the first time not to perform, bar a few brief entrances, leaving the action to an all-female ensemble of five? Pathetically thin in its artistic invention? In fact, what you notice after the opening dancer has poked her bottom at you, spat and launched into her solo, is the humour and vitality. This is not a sullen snarl. This is harmless and savvily assembled fun, which has Clark (in one of his fleeting vignettes) eating a pretend goldfish, only to expel it again in a humiliating retch, then rushing across the stage with a broom to sweep away his dancers, as if they were so much troublesome dust. More subversive is a pas de deux mocking ballet convention, one woman clumping her ungainly, platform-booted feet as she manipulates her partner.
What you also notice is the sweet, fluent simplicity of Clark's vocabulary: basic ballet phrased with the distinctive lilt of the Scottish dancing he did as a child. He knows how to vary the pace, how to make a shape tell. He makes a limpid patterning out of travels along parallel lines. Perhaps his company would dominate the space better if they had the larger personalities of their predecessors. Or perhaps it's because the choreography was not meant for the enormity of the rebuilt Sadler's Wells stage.
The stage gets even bigger for the second, new section, the wings and back opened up. The dancers' slow procession with Lucas's neon strips is magical, the lights assembling like art installations in the darkness. Then comes a man (not Clark) on film, his back turned, who is masturbating, so that this new piece's subtitle, Rise, has a double meaning. Lucas's plaster-cast gloves for the dancers, fists in a suggestive grip, add more wanking imagery, followed by a sculptural version – a giant arm that pumps up and down to Theodorakis's Zorba rhythms. Meanwhile, as the dancers spill buoyantly on to stage in arcs and lines, it becomes clear their costumes represent floppy Y-fronts – which makes them penises.
So Clark is back to his old tricks, although the masturbatory theme was apparently Lucas's idea. You might feel that it's time they acted their age. Or that the extraordinary orchestration of choreography, design and music has a baroquely grandiose scale that is actually funny. Personally, I'd go for the latter. I was more shocked at the shortness of Rise, which came to a masturbatorily limp end, just as I thought things were warming up.
Sadler's Wells until tomorrow (020-7863 8000), then touring to 17 Nov
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