Dance review: Michael Clark knits together ballet and glam rock

It took a while, but the Brit choreographer finally gave us a glimpse of a parallel universe

In the parallel (and fictional) universe in which classical ballet emerged in the era of Studio 54 rather than Renaissance Italy, Michael Clark is without a doubt the star choreographer of that world. He’s the natural choice to unite pointe ballet with the music of David Bowie, Lou Reed, and Iggy Pop. Having studied in London in the mid-’70s, Clarke made his name as a bit of a wild child in genre-crossing collaborations with performance artists, fashion designers, directors such as Peter Greenaway and such musicians as Wire, Laibach, and perhaps most unforgettably with the Fall.

Artslandia-ORAWreviewKnown for mixing brash, inventive and downright sassy choreography with classical ballet vocabulary and the dancers with the chops to do it, Clark has seen his career move in this universe from provocative wunderkind to influential, established talent, just like Iggy Pop, Bowie, and Reed have.

In that parallel universe, I imagine that there are entire schools and sub-genres dedicated to opposing philosophies about how to properly interpret the lo-fi menace of classics like Heroin. We’d see as many seasonal productions of Ziggy Stardust as we do Swan Lake. This particular time in the history of popular music would melt into place with the dance, rather than sticking out as a conversation piece.

By the third act the Michael Clark Company finally opened the door for David Bowie./Photo by Jake Walters

By the third act the Michael Clark Company finally opened the door for David Bowie./Photo by Jake Walters

I would like to see that universe’s version of this show, which Clark’s company danced for White Bird this weekend. I credit Clark for inventing that universe and taking the first, Major-Tom like steps out into its cosmos. But we are in a universe where “the music of David Bowie” and just the idea of “the Velvet Underground” references a known aesthetic, an existing back catalogue, a certain time and place, and a relatively finite set of expectations—at least finite compared to the mythically-inventive days in which the material for the show was recorded. Bowie himself realizes this, and I wonder how much it weighs on Michael Clark regarding his own career.

All of this is to ask if there’s more going on in this show than just classically-informed contemporary dance set to Velvet Goldmine era music. I’d say yes and no. It’s a very mixed batch. Most of the show is pure dance—the costumes are custom and there there are occasional multimedia moments, but nothing that references the scale of the glam-rock era that this show is ostensibly about, nor anything complex enough to place this show among other genre-crossing collaborations that are performed today. In the first two acts, the use of projection and costume didn’t seem to go far enough to stand on its own as a decision, and at times they distracted from some quite good dancing that could have stood strongly on its own. Or, possibly, a richer use of these elements could have supported the movement. The overall mood of the first two acts was ponderously solemn, enough to muddy potentially humorous moments. Until the Bowie section at the end, the fit didn’t feel quite right.

Happily, the Bowie act really came together. Judicious use of Bowie’s iconic video for Heroes and some deep cuts of Bowie reading his Hunger City mythology set an appropriately epic tone, and the movement and costumes seemed at home with the material more than the earlier acts. The strange mix of grandiosity and camp, dreaminess and DIY embodied by this music emerged in its strongest moments in this act. An impressively long pointe entrance to Jean Genie felt very much like something only the Michael Clark company could achieve.

If Clark is trying to inhabit this parallel universe, I think he may need to pull the audience into it a bit further before they see what he sees there. For those of us who didn’t go to college in London in the ’70s, staring at a lowered curtain for the duration of Warm Leatherette may not immediately connect to this company’s particular movement vocabulary.

The Bowie section proved that this music could work hand-in-glove with some very good and technically challenging dance. But the first two acts needed something more to bring all the elements together, or something less to let us just focus on the dance. This criticism relies in part on a comparison of this show to the strength of Clark’s earlier career, so in that way he is a victim of his own success. It’s admirable to see him continuing to push the boundaries of this vision, but I left with the feeling that the next step will feel much more solid than this one.

This review was made possible in part thanks to the support of our partners at Artslandia!

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