Absolute beginners

The DLR gave away its tickets to the world premiere of Michael Clark Company’s th at Tate Modern in favour of a quiet Sunday night with the cat, handing them to a friend with a total ignorance of choreography and an enduring love of Jarvis Cocker. Below is her review of Clark’s new commission for the Turbine Hall, a work made in collaboration with Charles Atlas (lighting) and Stevie Stewart (costumes) following the company’s public residency there last summer.

Common people

It was the closing night and queues had already formed an hour previously for any spare tickets to the sold-out event. The rain-sodden audience gathered in the café before being led down into the Turbine Hall, to take their seats on three carpeted platforms overlooking an expanse of white dance floor. Spotlights on certain areas of the seating left extroverts or unlucky latecomers perched in the glare as they waited for the performance.

The rousing sound of The Heavy by Relaxed Muscle began the proceedings and the ‘untrained’ section of the company was the first to fill the floor. Clark worked with a group of 48 ‘members of the public’ to create this part of the piece in a working process that was said to provide ‘a situation in which anyone, no matter what shape, age or size, is invited to learn a series of movements’ and apparently  ‘demonstrates a sense of faith in the ability of the human body and mind’. Dressed in tasteful black outfits (nothing skin-tight – a tasteful wraparound Gap-style toga) they swung their arms side to side, and marched to the music with purpose. Lying on the floor they scissored their arms and legs in a clock-like action and lifting their arms they looked earnestly into the foreground. There was something of the Dove advert to the display, with its beautifully lit ‘ordinary’ figures: these bodies were irregular only in a very tasteful way. They may have been ‘members of the public’ (who isn’t?) but they weren’t exactly a cross section from your 149 bus journey. The perfectly normal were followed by professional dancers in black and white matt Lycra, and ballet to Maggot Brain by Funkadelic and Sweet Thing by David Bowie. The combination of music and movement was mesmerising. Beautifully taut forms, bending and turning like sensual black and white plasticine.

A still from any of Michael Clark's pieces inevitably looks like a human version of that infamous YouTube video of the fainting goats. Go on, tell us we're wrong: http://tiny.cc/1oz45.

During the interval a friend turned to this DLR correspondent and said, ‘I’m really glad this isn’t art, I can just enjoy it’. This comment seemed somewhat dismissive – ignoring the interdisciplinary nature of Clark’s work, the influence from Cunningham and Cage and his numerous collaborations over the years, and putting him into a box marked ‘dance’ and sitting down hard on the lid in an attempt to stop Leigh Bowery, Sarah Lucas and Cerith Wyn Evans from clambering out and pirouetting awkwardly across the room. It was telling however – watching this performance was thoroughly enjoyable. Ultra slick and rousing, it was far from the task-based poor aesthetic usually associated with performance art.

The line up for Part 2 featured more Cocker (Relaxed Muscle, Pulp), Hall of Mirrors by Kraftwerk and plenty of Bowie. If the glossy whiteness of the first act was reminiscent of a Dove/Gap ad, here Atlas’s pop credentials (lighting Kylie’s international Showgirl tour and Britney Spears Circus) were all the more evident. The stage was infused with vivid yellow light, the white floor glowed canary and the dancers’ costumes shined metallic – gleaming shades of fire-y orange.  Such a combination of lighting and design, creating polished surface at every angle to accompany this score of once edgy and anarchic glam rock created the effect of being inside a pop video. When making a pop video the result is image, here the experience was sculptural – the surround-sound nature of the visuals with the knowledge we were in an art space inflated Clark’s formalism and left us wondering if we were not witnessing some kind  of excessive minimalism.

Er, Michael, you've got something on your face. No, don't make it obvious, just, oh -- now everyone's looking.

A pregnant dancer, lithe and beautiful, appeared throughout the second act. Hopping across the stage, her presence implied an ultimate equality – where everyone functional is put to work (or war). Meanwhile the Greatest Hits continued to blast from the speakers, Heroes (and a projection of Bowie’s clown while below Clark mirrored his actions on the floor), Future Legend and Aladdin Sane. When the final track began it felt like the last dance of a big night out – the moment when closing time is called and everyone, washed up and sweaty, throws themselves into one more glitter-smeared anthem. The not-so-common people trooped in to Jean Genie and did their clock thing again and it seemed the dynamic between performers and audience might change as the number of bodies on the ground almost matched the numbers looking down from their seats.

Clark presents a disturbingly seductive mass choreography. Sanitised (white-cubed?) glam rock, stirring sound and polished uniforms. No wonder the beautiful people love him.

It was either utterly and wonderfully shallow, or formally wonderful and utterly profound.

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