To the Barbican in the City of London last night for an extraordinary evening of modern ballet, courtesy of the Michael Clark Company. An ugly building that houses such beauty! This was my first time through the Barbican’s doors. Once past the brutalist concrete pillars and almost sadistic lack of decent seating in the bar areas (three quid for a bottle of beer, par for the course in such establishments), the Theatre itself was a revelation: wide, comfy seats that don’t flip up, a clear view of the huge, widescreen stage, dazzlingly simple access to each row by way of individual entry points through doors that automatically close when the houselights dim, a superb sound system – it put the South Bank into the shade; if only they could excavate it from the Barbican, lift it up and put it, well, at the South Bank!
Having begun to enjoy mostly traditional ballet these past couple of years, and having been wowed by Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker at Sadler’s Wells, I felt ready to appreciate what Clark has clearly done for the form, and his New Work 2009 – that is, Swamp and the two-part Come, Been and Gone – seemed a perfect place to hop aboard, based as it is on the work of Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and David Bowie (and Wire, as it transpired). Premiered at Edinburgh, it now comes home to the Barbican, where Clark is an Artistic Associate. Among the arts-based celebs we spotted in the audience were Mark Moore, formerly of S’Express, and Sam Taylor-Wood with her boyish new boyfriend, the actor Aaron Johnson (they snogged during the interval, which was a bit much, but that’s young love, I guess). The sell-out audience seemed to be of “a certain age”, that is, Clark’s age, Taylor-Wood’s age and pretty much my age: the very people to be excited by hearing White Light/White Heat and Jean Genie through a big sound system and being interpreted through dance. I’m afraid I went in with this preconception: I’m going to bloody love this.
And I bloody loved it. The first section, Swamp, based on Feeling Called Love by Wire, followed by two, lengthy ambient pieces by Wire’s Bruce Gilbert from his album This Way, involved eight dancers – three men, five women – bending their lithe bodies in simple leotards on an empty stage against a floor-to-rafters white screen which a single strip of white light occasionally traversed, as if it were a long, thin, moving doorway, or the vertical band on an old-fashioned radio dial. When you haven’t been to live dance for a while, you forget just how insanely athletic and poised great dancers are, and these were no exception: hair simply tied or greased back, with black strips across the eyes, the Clark style has them almost never in complete synchronisaton – rather, they do their own thing, sometimes in pairs, forever dancing off into the wings and reappearing, sometimes on the opposite side, as if the stage frames our view of a much larger dance and we are looking through a cinemascopic viewfinder. The sheer simplicity and strength of these tactile routines, based on slow-marching, foot-dragging, puffed-out chests and surgically controlled slow movement, is mesmerising.
The second section and first act of Come, Been and Gone (there were two intervals, of which the second seemed unnecessary and broke the mood), featured four Velvet Underground songs – Venus In Furs, the aforementioned, Heroin and Ocean – each with its own visual theme and formation, such as a solo performance for Heroin in a bodysuit with syringes sticking out of it, while the others involved a full company of six (two men, four women) plus Clark himself, usually in humorous cameos. This followed through to the climax, beginning with Iggy’s Bowie-like Mass Production, then into a Bowie suite: the doomily ambient Sense Of Doubt, “Heroes” (during which the screen bore giant footage from the video and Bowie seemed to join the company, all wearing that boxy jacket he wore), After All (a great, quirky little song from Man Who Sold The World), Future Legend and Chant of The Ever Circling Skeletal Family from Diamond Dogs, Aladdin Sane (during which one of the male dancers responded to every plink of Mike Garson’s insane piano solo – genius!), and Jean Genie, an upbeat finale, with more jackets adapted from the Bowie original. These songs, recorded almost 40 years ago, sounded big, full and contemporary coming out of those speakers. Modern music really should be ashamed of itself.
Clark’s reputation as an iconoclastic genius is already written. I’m fully aware that I’m coming pretty late to the party – how I wish I’d seen I Am Curious Orange with the Fall in ’88, from which I saw intriguing clips on a South Bank Show, I think – but I can concur: he is an amazing, singular choreographer. His young company are like putty in his hands – it’s like watching gymnasts without the accent on points, glory and competition (they dance most of the show barefoot). When watching dance you find yourself fixating on certain individuals – one of the female dancers was noticeably taller and less skinny than the others and so stood out, and she moved with such incredible precision; all three of the men/boys were also captivating, not built up like bodybuilders or Hollywood actors but taut and graceful. You begin to take their skills for granted, but my God, they move their entire bodies around while standing on one foot and it’s as if they are on a rotating turntable.
Clark, although too old for all this apparently, was also impressive when he appeared, and utterly self-effacing: at one point he emerged from the wings holding a cricket bat and immediately departed again; at another, in a Victorian bathing suit, he spurted water out of his mouth like a bendy whale. (During Aladdin Sane, three of the dancers appeared nude, facing the back, and bumped bare arses in time to the music – such comedy was refreshing.)
A memorable night. I feel ill-equipped to describe dance, having seen so little of it, relatively speaking, but I hope I have conveyed my delight and awe.