Review: Michael Clark Company -Triple Bill - Barbican Theatre

Performance: 21 - 30 November 2013
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 25 November 2013

Michael Clark Company. November 2013, Barbican Theatre. Photo: Bettina Strenske

Performance reviewed: 21 November

This programme is effectively a reworked reprise of the show Michael Clark presented at the Barbican theatre last year, minus the live presence on stage of his musical collaborator, Jarvis Cocker, but plus a new middle section inspired by punk rock. I didn’t see last year’s show and so it was all new to me and, as such, it provoked the overwhelming thought that Clark’s newer work seems now to be hovering in the slipstream left by the shooting star that was Merce Cunningham. This feeling is fuelled by the fact that one third of his dance cohort comprises two of the most charismatic of Cunningham’s former dancers, since Daniel Squire and Julie Cunningham (originally from Liverpool and unrelated to the late, great dance maker) now dance with the Michael Clark Company (the Merce Cunningham Dance Company having ceased to function from January 2012). Julie Cunningham is a nominee for the best female modern dance performance in the 2013 UK National Dance Awards for her achievements in last year’s show.

In many respects (not least in the overall movement quality, through the surprise of apparently random actions and in the blocks of vibrant colour on dancers’ unitards) it appears not to be simply coincident that the two choreographers share the same initials. This programme of work is apparently untitled: it could perhaps have been appropriately called MC², since I could have been easily convinced that some of the dances in the first section were later works by Cunningham I had not previously seen.

The opening section began with the feet of Julie Cunningham appearing from under the proscenium arch, as she was slowly lowered to the floor on a line, the dancer maintaining her body’s disciplined control throughout the descent. This surprising preparation set the scene for six dances to music from Scritti Politti’s 2006 album, White Bread Black Beer. Released more than 20 years’ after the band’s debut, it was effectively a solo album for the group’s only permanent member, Green Gartside, who plays all the instruments and provides the vocals. This minimalist clarity provided continuity with Clark’s movement style, utilising a simple classical language but stretched and angled into variant poses that might perhaps look like an arabesque but deflated as if the dancer’s body is having the air sucked out; or in pirouettes that spin slowly on demi-pointe but with arms held low. Deep bends, hyper extended limbs, long lunges, distorted bodies and expressionless faces characterise the overarching imagery. Oxana Panchenko was, for me, the essence of the work, exuding a vacancy of emotion that contrasted with an overt sensuality; here was a robotic doll but one more Barbarella than Barbie.

Up to the end of the sixth number, a highly stylised radiance had permeated the show with the dancers’ artistry bringing Gartside’s soft, almost middle-of-the-road music, into a visual reckoning. It was all surprisingly inoffensive from the man often cited as dance’s ‘enfant terrible’. But, as in recognition thereof, the raucous quotient was ramped up after a brief pause with new dance to a trio of punk rock numbers, respectively by Public Image Ltd, New York Dolls and the Sex Pistols. The sound revved up and with it came a more jagged range of movement. Where the Scritti dances had emphasised an interaction – albeit linking robots rather than human beings – now these same dancers took on the alienation of punk. They didn’t pogo and head-butt the air but their actions appeared entirely isolated from one another.

The final part was a reprise of last year’s work to music by Pulp and Relaxed Muscle (both involving the aforementioned Jarvis Cocker, who appears here in disguise and only on film and for the final track). In these six pieces, the Cunningham-esque style of the first part (both new and old) seemed to be let off the leash. Clark ramped up the design content (both in costumes that varied from Mondrian-style blocks of colour to zebra-stripes), with graphics that scrolled words and phrases in disorientating sequences (back-to-front, sideways, upside-down) while the women, equally disconcertingly and without a scintilla of emotion, dry-humped stools with reflective surfaces. “I’m Thinking of Starting a Zoo” was one scrolling statement that brought laughter from the stalls. It was relevant in some ways (zebra-striped costumes, animalistic sexual urges) and incongruous in others.

This is where Clark is at his best, not in channelling new vehicles for dance that looks as it came from somewhere else (no matter how brilliant was that place), but in challenging his audience’s intellect and forcing us to ask questions through his own inimitable brand of dance theatre. It is also remarkable that he takes small-scale principles (six dancers, recorded music and minimalist set design) and makes it work in a large-scale theatre. There are few who can bring off this trick.

Continues at Barbican Theatre until 30 November

Photos: Bettina Strenske

Graham Watts writes for, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK.

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