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.
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.
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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