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LIVE REPORT: Michael Clark
Neil Cooper , October 12th, 2012 10:23

Michael Clark Company – New Work 2012 reviewed at the Tramway, Glasgow

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When a crop-haired female dancer is lowered from the heavens onto the vast expanse of the stage of one of the most significant performance/art spaces in Europe, it magnificently sums up the audacious spirit of Michael Clark. Especially as the trio that make up Green Gartside's twenty-first century version of one-time squat rockers turned glossy 1980 chart stars Scritti Politti are playing 'The Boom Boom Bap', the lead single from Gartside's 2006 'comeback' album, White Bread Black Beer, tucked into the side of the stage beside the action the band are under-scoring.

Royal Ballet rebel Clark fled the tutus and tights set to form his own company in 1984, performing to soundtracks dominated in early works by the relentless repetitions of The Fall, who he first referenced in his 1984 piece, New Puritans. It says much for the relative conservatism of the contemporary dance world that for more than thirty years, now, Clark has been regarded as a mould-breaking enfant-terrible, part punk, part Puck, part Peter Pan.

Now aged 50, and rarely seen onstage these days, Clarke's well-documented wild years have now given way to a kind of pan-generational elder-statesman status akin to some of the first-generation post-punk bands who've reformed to show the skinny-jeaned new wave of pretenders how it's done. Unlike those acts Clark has rarely been away, and has done much of his growing up in public. The relationship between his choreography and the music that provides its pulse-beat, too, has been a constant, seemingly providing increasingly intimate elements of personal salvation beyond the frissons of bum-baring outrage.

It's almost a quarter of a century now since Clark and The Fall's Mark E Smith masterminded I Am Kurious Oranj, a larger-than-life main-stage spectacle that turned English history into an Old Firm football match and had Smith's then spouse and Fall guitarist Brix Smith enter perched astride a giant hamburger. Somewhere among all this, the band, onstage throughout, played a version of William Blake's 'Jerusalem' amidst a welter of new material. As a major Edinburgh International Festival commission, to suggest I Am Kurious Oranj shook up the city's culture vultures is something of an understatement.

More recently, in something of a prodigal's return to EIF in 2009, Clarke had his troupe perform to a set of 1970s proto-punk classics, by Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and David Bowie. This included a routine accompanied by the distractingly iconic video of a post-Berlin David Bowie performing 'Heroes'. Only a few weeks ago, Clark choreographed a large-scale community project at Glasgow's Barrowlands, the legendary dance-hall turned even more legendary music venue.

For this new programme, opening in Glasgow before transferring to The Barbican, Clarke shows he's not lost his edge with two very different halves, set first to the analogue techno squelch of Jarvis Cocker and Jason Buckle's Relaxed Muscle project, who performed live with Clark's company in March and will do so again when New Work 2012 transfers to the Barbican later this month, followed by the honeyed melancholy skank of the aforementioned Scritti Politti. Seen back to back, the wildness and fragility that follows showcases both sides of Clark's creative psyche.

Once the curtains open to quell the palpable sense of collective anticipation that pervades the room, however, things begin with Pulp's Brit-Pop era 'F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E.' Here, Cocker's slice of obsession turned to triumph is illustrated by the Company's eight dancers moving in superhero style orange/red costumes like science-fiction automatons trying to connect. Words from the song's breathily delivered lyrics are projected onto the huge screen behind, the typography throwing shapes as much as those onstage. Two new tracks, Joyce and Jimmy, strip things back to a state of dirty-assed primitivism that's reflected in the choreography, a series of minimalist routines which criss-cross each other without ever touching.

By the time the music moves into 'The Heavy', '3-Way Accumulator' and 'Beastmaster', three tracks from Relaxed Muscle's tellingly titled 2003 debut album, A Heavy Night With... the dancers are dressed like op-art ancient Egyptians dancing with mirror-topped stools that dazzle as they're whirled close to the dancers bodies. For the bump and grind of Beastmaster, dancers crawl the stage or else ride astride each other as they give way to their fill animal magnetism.

If the first half is about desire at its most basic, the second, Scritti-accompanied half is an altogether quieter, more tender affair, and it's telling that the six songs the band play from White Bread Black Beer are some of the most reflective on the album. The cheers that greet Gartside, keyboardist Rhodri Marsden and drummer Nick Roberts descend into hush once they begin 'The Boom Boom Bap' as the dancer is lowered onto terra firma. As the other seven move slowly onstage in turn, dressed in androgynous shorts, kilts or dresses, the moves they make are more fluid, sweeping across the stage in a bitter-sweet dreamscape of unfulfilled yearning.

It's desire again, but more intimate and personal somehow, both in Gartside's lyrics and Clark's choreography. Together against a backdrop of a huge blue-projected screen that recalls the late Derek Jarman's minimalist celluloid masterpiece, Blue, they form an impressionistic narrative that beguiles. While 'No Fine Lines', 'Cooking And After Six' lend a jauntiness to the dancers inter-weaving, by the time that Clark himself joins the company onstage for a show-stealing turn in shorts sand vest, the finale of 'Petrococadollar' and 'Window Wide Open' may be downbeat, but it's also tinged with hope. Gartside looks a tad off his stride when the seated audience don't clap between songs as they would at a regular gig, and when the dancers grab him by the hand to take a bow, he appears charmingly bewildered by the formality of the occasion. Either that, or the fact that the capacity crowd has finally been allowed to give vent to a noisy homage, to Scritti and the dancers for sure, but mainly to the twenty-first century renaissance man that is Michael Clark.

Michael Clark Company – New Work 2012, Barbican, London, October 17th-27th