I’d love to say that my love for Michael Clark has existed for as long as my love of ballet has (a total of 16 years) but that would be a lie. The truth is, growing up I hadn't heard of the dancer and choreographer at all, not a peep, despite our interests seeming to cross over continuously and our references almost identical. Clark has always been open about referencing people and figures I've looked up to ever since I knew how to read which is why I’m now stunned I never came across his work when I was a ballet dancer myself. We both have a mutual love for the musician David Bowie and the Russian composer Stravinsky, we both have a huge fascination for the movement Dada that spanned across Europe in the early 1920s and Clark himself was also a very close friend and colleague of the late Leigh Bowery (an artist I have idolised immensely since I was a teenager.) So far, so similar yet the difference is Clark not only paid tribute to his interests in the work he made throughout his decade-spanning career, he also went a step further to marry the two together. Ballet sequences set to... Ziggy Stardust? I never thought such a thing was possible but in the poignant words of Michael Clark, ‘I dance to what I like, you dance to what you like’ stands for itself.
It’s important to note that like when his icon David Bowie refused to give any interviews following his 2014 exhibition at the V&A, David Bowie Is, Clark is doing the same - not merely to emulate the late musician - but rather because the dancer is shy. Instead, Clark surrendered his archive to the gallery and the exhibition’s curator, Florence Ostende, mirroring his action of surrendering most of his life to his art. To quote Helen Barrett of the Financial Times in her review of Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer ahead of the exhibition’s opening, ‘Clark’s silence is perplexing because for most of the past four decades he has been anything but reticent. Among the most sublime generation of dancers of his generation, the 58-year-old is celebrated equally for his visionary and transgressive stage-craft, with its elements of dada, punk and pop, his insouciance, and his disregard for convention. Even the toughest critics have been awed by his virtuosity.’
My first introduction to the dancer was when I interviewed one of his company’s dancers Benjamin Warbis in 2016 for a university project I was working on at the time. Warbis has danced in many of the choreographer's most important productions including a critically acclaimed role in Come, Been and Gone in 2009 which featured at the Barbican and subsequently went on tour afterwards. One of the reasons I have huge respect for Clark and his dancers is simply due to their frequent wearing of restricted clothing while still being able to perform as elegantly as ever (all to the sound of rock and roll, something we all know that is not commonly associated with ballet.) Warbis told me that ‘working with Michael Clark Company is a real privilege. It’s extremely hard work most of the time, mentally as well as physically and the work is very intricate, classically technical and articulate. When performing to hardcore rock songs, Michael focuses hugely on the lyrics, their journey, meaning and story-telling. It’s rare that we as dancers are made aware of his narrative ideas in the choreography but an immense amount of work goes into it all.’
It’s easy for me to talk about Clark’s work and legacy mainly because I've been familiar with it for a couple of years and because of my sheer love of dance, so understandably, my enthusiasm may seem a little biased at times. But, truly, despite the fact that the Barbican are known for curating such fabulous exhibitions (Masculinities, Into the Night, Boom for Real and The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk just to name a few) this was perhaps the best one yet - and not just because it struck a highly personal chord with me, it really is the best one yet.
For those who haven't been to the exhibition and are curious about it, I truly would urge you to go. I’ve been three times and I still feel like that is nowhere near enough to take in the sheer magnitude of it all. Covering a collaboration with Sarah Lucas, a room full of Wolfgang Tillmans’ photography of the dancer, paintings of the Michael Clark Company performing by water-colourist Silke Otto-Knapp, a curation of televised screens by Charles Atlas and a variety of costumes designed by 80s royalty Body Map – I would suggest not to go to the exhibition on an empty stomach… this one needs your full attention and nothing but.
Clark’s work was angry, punk in its aesthetic and completely symbolic of 80s society. People had a right to rebel, after all Margaret Thatcher was the prime minister and did no favours for the ordinary person, whether you lived north or south of the country. This is what so strongly links Clark to today; the action of rebelling. The youth of 2020 have so much to be angry about – whether it’s being locked away in their rooms with their parents for months upon months or not being able to see their parents at all, hidden away in a highly-priced rented flat with few windows and no garden while a pandemic sweeps the nation (and the globe.) If the anger isn’t directed at a pandemic, it’s at sky-high tuition fees and a job market that is so dire it’s almost laughable, it’s at Brexit and climate emergency it’s at the high possibility that few of today’s youth will become home-owners in the future; there’s truly a lot to be angry about – it’s times like this that don’t hinder creativity but make it flourish.