Let's Dance: Michael Clark Company
This article is from 2009.
Set to the music of David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, Michael Clark Company’s new work is the flagship show of the International Festival dance programme.
When you’re the closest thing the dance world has to a household name, every word you say, work you create and mistake you make is documented and kept for posterity. Despite turning 47 in June, Michael Clark is still dogged by the term ‘enfant terrible’, when in fact he has matured into a choreographer of quite remarkable depth.
As he returns to the Edinburgh International Festival for the first time in 20 years, we speak to four people who love and admire Clark for different reasons. Richard Alston, the man who took Clark under his wing at Rambert Dance Company; Charles Atlas who has collaborated with Clark for over 25 years; long-time Clark dancer, Kate Coyne; and Edinburgh International Festival director, Jonathan Mills who is bringing the Aberdeenshire lad back to Scotland in the year of Homecoming.
The Young Dancer
Clark was just 17-years-old when he walked through the door at Rambert in 1979, having been talented spotted by former artistic director, Richard Alston. Armed with his Royal Ballet School training, he was hungry to explore a more modern approach.
‘Michael was very young but even at that age he had an extraordinary physique,’ recalls Alston.
‘Those incredible long limbs, great control and amazing co-ordination. I think it was very hard for Michael to ever do anything that wasn’t elegant.’
Alston choreographed several roles for Clark, including solo, Soda Lake, which marked the young dancer out as a force to be reckoned with. It also inspired him to create his own work, and by 1982, Clark had left Rambert to strike out on his own.
‘He was much younger than me but we were kindred spirits in a way,’ says Alston. ‘So I knew that he was getting restless being in a company and wanted to try new things. And I’ve since read that by working with me, he realised he didn’t have to chuck out his classical training in order to make new work – that he could find his own way using all his gifts.’
Clark has worked with several key figures from the worlds of music, art and film, including Brit Art’s Sarah Lucas and Mark E. Smith of The Fall. But it is his relationship with visual artist and filmmaker, Charles Atlas that has born the most fruit. It was while working with Karole Armitage (the choreographer responsible for Madonna’s Vogue video) that Clark was first introduced to Atlas, leading to two films and 25 years of imaginative lighting design.
Inevitably, Clark’s approach to choreography has matured over that time, and using outsize dildos is now a thing of the past. ‘Michael started choreographing at a younger age than most,’ says Atlas, ‘Usually people dance with a company for a while, then start to choreograph when they’re about 30 – but he began when he was 20, so had ideas that a person that age might have. And it’s all developed – I saw all the seeds of what is there now, right at the beginning.’
One possible reason for the Atlas/Clark partnership success is their shared love of spontaneity. Creating right up until the last possible second, it’s a way of working that’s not for the faint-hearted. ‘We’re kind of last minute type of guys,’ laughs Atlas. ‘Two days before the show opens it doesn’t look like anything, and then miraculously on the opening night, it looks like something.’
Dancer, Kate Coyne knows how to think on her feet. Working alongside Clark for the past twelve years, she has nothing but praise for her boss, but is the first to admit his method isn’t for everybody.
‘It’s challenging in lots of ways that many people couldn’t cope with it,’ says Coyne. ‘Michael is very demanding physically and he really is a perfectionist – if he shows you something and you can’t do it, he doesn’t let up until you can. And if he isn’t sure what he wants, you’re in limbo until he does, which can be just before the performance. So you need the ability to stay calm and put a lot of trust in him.’
Coyne joined Clark’s company in 1997, after many years at Rambert. Her ballet training and powerful physique perfectly suit Clark’s choreography, with its blend of rigorous contemporary moves and classical technique. She’s also got a great memory, which is just as well, as his work evolves with each performance. ‘There’s always new stuff going in,’ she says. ‘That’s how Michael works. When I first joined him I thought okay, we’ll finish this dance in a few weeks – but the pieces are never finished. It’s to keep us and him interested and to keep perfecting it.’
Set to the music of David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, Clark’s new piece promises to be one of the most exciting events of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival. Clark may have had his highs and lows, but for Jonathan Mills, who programmed the new work sight unseen, he was worth the risk. ‘I’ve seen lots of Michael’s work,’ he says. ‘And one trusts a creator not just on the basis of one piece, but on a lifetime of work.’
The full piece, complete with Atlas’ lighting design, will premier in Edinburgh – but Mills and others have seen a preview of what we can expect. ‘There is incredible, high octane energetic dance,’ he says. ‘But to describe Michael’s work in those terms is to short-change him, because there’s also something altogether more lyrical, as well as being very funky, trendy and contemporary. It’s Michael’s balletic quality, coupled with his unique take on contemporary culture that I find so intriguing and beguiling.’
Michael Clark Company, Edinburgh Playhouse, 473 2000, Fri 28-Mon 31 Aug, 8pm. £8–£28.