Michael Clark Company, th, Tate Modern Turbine Hall

The comeback kid of British dance, Michael Clark was fêted in the 1980s for his purity of line and grace as a performer, and for his unusual choreographic collaborations with indie musicians including The Fall. Clark’s early successes were followed by a spectacular fall from grace, pressure mounting as a commissioned work for the Royal Ballet failed to appear in 1994. Happily, recent years have seen Clark restored in the public eye, with his company based at the Barbican and last year a groundbreaking residency at Tate Modern, to which the company returns with the fashionably lower-case th.Michael Clark Company, th, Turbine Hall Tate Modern,  8 – 12 June 2011Photos: Hugo Glendinning © Michael Clark Company/Hugo Glendinning

Created as a site-specific work in response to the vast, vault-like architecture of the Tate’s Turbine Hall (the programme gives no clues, but I suspect the space gives th its title), the piece is performed on a striking black-and-white floor surrounded on three sides by block seating. The scale of the space means the performance alternates between distant spectacle and extreme close-up; one moment a dancer passes by at arm’s length, breath audible and sweat visible, the next moment we are peering down the hall to catch sight of a tiny unitarded figure at the other end.

Those unitards (austere black and white in the opening sections, flaming gold later on) visually reinforce the direct line between Clark and Merce Cunningham; Clark’s dancers are well-disciplined in the exacting Cunningham technique. Where Clark differs, of course, is in his use of music. The choreographer eschews Cage-esque aural soundscapes in favour of short, raw bursts of pop music (here, mostly 70’s Bowie), and sets movement material closely to the music rather than allowing the relationship to evolve by chance. Given the importance of music to the work, the Turbine Hall makes a strange choice of venue – put bluntly, the acoustics in there are appalling. Anyone who prefers their Bowie sans boom and bounce would do better to stay at home with a decent stereo system.

The site-specific elements seem few and far between. Opening section The Heavy makes good use of a massed group of 48 non-professional performers dressed in asymmetric black drapes. In rigid grid formation, three dancing phalanxes work through a mechanistic step sequence, first erect and then flat on the floor. The cohort has been well-drilled, but I found it a shame the material was clearly taught rather than devised in collaboration with the dancers.

Later sections include a company member dangling casually from the seating (and causing the gentleman in the adjacent seat to look a little non-plussed) and female company dancers re-enacting a portion of Sweet Charity on the first floor balcony overlooking the stage. Apart from these few moments, however, the choreography makes little reference to the scale, shape or usage of the Turbine Hall. For a site-specific work, this could really be performed on any stage; and for something billed as a new work, th contains much familiar from last year’s residency.

First-night nerves may explain a few wobbles and moments of missed unison. The cast is generally strong:  Brooke Smiley, with her fluid vigour, does much to make the Clark style her own, and a pregnant Melissa Hetherington looks preternaturally graceful stepping lightly through swift triplets with her unitarded baby-bump. Other dancers lack the punch the choreography requires. To show everyone how it’s done, the man himself appears at the start of Part 2, casually attired and with a green nappy-pin through his auricle.

Clark’s rigorous, industrial style works best set against Kraftwerk’s glacial Hall of Mirrors. Bizarrely, it also comes into its own when paired with the raucous, offbeat Jean Genie, in which the whole company leaps exuberantly around the massive space with a perfect balance of precision and evident joy. The material is enlivened by Charles Atlas’s excellent, dynamic lighting design, which tracks the performers through the space and shapes the piece with eyecatching grid and spiral patterns. These highlights aside, however, the conspicuously technical, Cunningham-derived material adds little to either th’s spatial setting or its soundtrack.

Reader, I really wanted to like this. The world will always need technicians; there’s a place in dance for both pedestrian expression and gymnastic virtuosity. But compared with some of the inventive, sensitive performance I’ve seen this year, this left me rather cold.  Given the warm applause that greeted the curtain call, I may well be a minority voice on this one; but give me the naked Canadians* any day of the week.

Continues to Sunday 12 June. Sold out on Friday. More details

Photos: Hugo Glendinning. Michael Clark Company, th, Turbine Hall Tate Modern,  8 – 12 June 2011
© Michael Clark Company / Hugo Glendinning

Originally posted at www.londondance.com

Dance: Q&A with Hofesh Shechter

Israeli-born choreographer Hofesh Shechter started dancing with Batsheva and in the UK with Jasmin Vardimon’s company.  He’s been making waves in the UK since 2004, when his sextet Cult was chosen for the finals of the first Place Prize. Now an Associate Artist at Sadler’s Wells, with his company resident at Brighton Dome and touring over 100 dates a year, Shechter is involved in a wide variety of performance and education projects.

We found a crack in his busy schedule to talk about revisiting Political Mother, the new showcase for his dancers’ works In Good Company, funding, films, and life in the ‘family’ that is Hofesh Shechter Company.

Hofesh Shechter 'Political Mother'Photo: Ben RudickYou’re busy rehearsing Political Mother: The Choreographer’s Cut. Why the ‘choreographer’s cut’?
The idea is to do something that is fun to come and see, that is quite a celebration of sound and dance and light and enjoyment, hopefully without losing any of the weight of it.  It’s really about making our lives more exciting, and it felt like a nice refreshment for this year rather than just touring the same piece over and over again.

We did it a couple of years ago with Uprising and In Your Rooms and really it was one of the highlights of my life, and the opportunity arose again with Sadler’s Wells.  We now have twenty-four musicians – for me that’s an amazing playground, I love playing with music. Political Mother already had nine live musicians and it’s really calling for that size and for that celebration. We’ll also have more dancers on stage. A lot of my pieces have the concept or the idea of a mass, so to actually have a mass rather than something that just suggests a mass is really exciting, really powerful.

Do you feel you’ve learned anything about the piece by revisiting it this year?
Yes, I’m learning things about it, and that’s the scary bit. You get much more analytical, about the presence of different parts: if you take a part out, what do you need to replace it with?  I feel that there is something very exciting about Political Mother, very entertaining, very in-your-face, it’s a fast train on the one hand; but then it has a really cold hard atmosphere that is really heavy, difficult to deal with.  And then the question arises, without these parts would the piece be the same or not? Anything you touch changes the balance of the whole thing.  It’s like preparing a soup and going, ‘OK, now we’re going to extract the carrots, let’s see if it’s still the same.’ It’s really interesting, but it’s a real challenge.

Hofesh Shechter Company Dancers 'Good Company', The Place, 18 June 2011Your company are also preparing for In Good Company, an evening of new works choreographed by some of your dancers. What’s the idea behind the showcase?
It’s actually something I wanted to do for a while. I admire my dancers and feel in huge debt to them for everything that they give creatively, and it sort of felt like a natural thing to give this opportunity to them to be creative and to have their own voice out there. We’re trying to give them a sense of the real world, but with a cushion – we are producing it for them, the company office is working on it and there’s a budget and technical support, so it’s quite cushioned but still gives them a sense of real life. For me it’s an amazing adventure, I’ll just walk into the theatre and next week I’ll see it for the first time at the technical rehearsal – that’s really exciting.

Is the development of your dancers as artists important to you?
I always wanted to do this evening, it felt natural; but the other thing is that I’m always trying to create in the company a sense of security for the dancers. I’ve been a dancer and I know that it’s not an easy life if you dance, trying to find jobs in between projects. So from the very first moment that we created the company, [Helen Shute, is executive director of the company] the idea was to create as much security and continuity as possible. That works both ways, because dancers that are secure are happier, and if they’re happier the environment is happier, the energy in the company is better and I think that everything we’re doing in general is more positive.

It’s certainly not the easiest thing to do, that would be to hire dancers for tours and then tell them ‘good luck, see you in four months’. But what we are trying to do is create continuity. So that means that some dancers who have been with me for a long time basically work a full-time contract, with paid vacations, insurance, sick pay, it’s a real job. And that’s really great because it creates a real sense of family. It’s important for me that people have a positive experience, with flexibility and with openness as to what they’re going to do after, and that’s certainly the relationship I’ve had with dancers in the last few years.

You recently became part of Arts Council England’s new National Portfolio with a funding increase; how will that affect the company’s structure and future plans?
The funding that was announced is actually going to kick in a year from now. That’s important to remember because we are actually going to go through a difficult year now, that’s something that we keep reminding ourselves and the people that work with us. This year we actually had a 33% cut, which makes next year appear much more massive. It’s a substantial uplift, and it’s wonderful, but it’s not as crazy as it looks on paper. We need it for the organisation more or less the way it is to survive, to add some people to the office to carry the burden of the administration.

I’m hoping for the company not to become heavy.  I think heavy organisations lose their flexibility, their ability to move fast, to change, to choose another project.  The idea is to keep it light and with a family feel and not to become a whale!  From next year, it’s certainly going to help us, not only with dancers’ security but with dancers’ salaries that we’re also always fighting for. We are very proud of what we did [regarding dancers’ contracts] because of course financially it’s not the easy choice. But I’m really happy the Arts Council is coming with us on this and supporting us the way they do.

You’ll be discussing your favourite moments in dance on film in Reel Lives with John Ashford at The Place next week [Thu 9 June]…
The Place
came to me with that idea and I just thought it was great! First of all it’s nice to come back to The Place, where my career was born really. John is a man who supported my work so much and knows really where it started and how it developed, so it feels really like coming back home to have a chat with family.  It’s also great because of my very strong connection to films and my feeling that films are a big inspiration to my work. What I’m really excited about is that when people see the films, they will see very strong connections to the work, very strong inspiration. And it’s just a fun thing to do.

Give us a sneak preview of one of the clips you’ll be discussing…
When I was nine or so, every Friday evening in Israel we had a film on TV, sort of a weekend thing, and I remember we used to be in our parents’ bed, after a shower, watching the TV. And I remember seeing Singing in the Rain and I just thought ‘It’s me! It looks just like me!’ And of course Gene Kelly looks nothing like me, but I wanted to be that, I wanted to do that, I guess I saw some sort of freedom and lightness and emotion. Just thinking about it many years later after I got into dance, I found it interesting how much subconsciously that clip made me feel like [dance] is not only fine but it’s a life of liberty and a life of expression. So I suggest people type Singing in the Rain in to YouTube and see an absolutely talented man.[We’ve done it for you.. ] Other films in the discussion may be very different!

You’ve contributed to the community dance showcase Sum of Parts at Sadler’s Wells this week. What was your involvement in that?
My involvement was mainly being in awe of that amazing project.  I have to give a huge great credit to our dancers Phil Hulford  and Hannah Shepherd, who went and worked with the groups. I chose music that I found most inspiring and appropriate for the project, Phil and Hannah chose exactly how to use it. We spoke about the energy that might be right for the pieces, and they went out there and worked with the Company of Elders and a very young group of dancers [from Hugh Myddelton School]. I came and visited in rehearsals and fed back a bit.

I have to say it was just really touching, being there and seeing the two groups working together. It kind of makes you understand the insignificance of skill and technique – it’s really not what matters, it’s not why we are dancing. No matter how young you are or how old you are you can dance, and you feel a sense of fulfilment and excitement. As a viewer you are connected to exactly the same emotions the people who are dancing are connected to. I found it totally inspiring, totally touching. I’m looking forward to seeing that on stage!

Originally posted at www.londondance.com