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The bad boy of British dance returns to Australia

Michael Clark's to a simple rock 'n' roll ... song graces the Concert Hall stage in late January.

Jane Cornwell
The Australian

Back in the shockable ‘80s, Michael Clark was known as the bad boy of British dance. A Royal Ballet School graduate with rigour, imagination and a passion for music, art and design, he formed his own company aged 22 and proceeded to stir up controversy with performances that involved giant dildos as props, outfits that bared his dancers’ bums and cameos from friends including the late Australian performance artist, Leigh Bowery.

“Working with non-dancers helped me rediscover the wonder of dance,” Clark will say after we meet in a London hotel, having padded in wearing trainers, tracky dacks and a large safety pin in his right ear. “Leigh encouraged me by seeing things completely differently.”

What saved Clark’s work from tipping over into spectacle was the beauty of his choreography. Early shows such as No Fire Escape From Hell and I Am Curious, Orange might have featured rock guitars and police truncheons, but they were delivered with a precise grace that recalled renowned choreographers Frederick Ashton and Merce Cunningham, while inventing a dance language of their own.

Now 55 and with a CBE from Buckingham Palace, Clark is still making work; the most rebellious elements of his current show, a triptych featuring eight dancers and titled to a simple rock’n’roll…song, are in its aesthetic: In the music it uses: piano pieces by Erik Satie. The epic ‘Land’ by Patti Smith. The career spanning tracks ‘Aladdin Sane’ and ‘Black Star’ by David Bowie.

Image: Jake Walters

There’s leftfield edge to the costumes that Clark has co-designed with Stevie Stewart, formerly of cult fashion duo Bodymap, and the op art lighting of revered video artist, Charles Atlas. Clark has long garnered the support of outside-the-box creatives: filmmaker Peter Greenaway cast him in Prospero’s Books. Musicians Jarvis Cocker, Wire, Scritti Politti and Bowie are all previous collaborators; early on, so was classical ballet icon Rudolf Nureyev.

The idea of the outsider is threaded throughout Clark’s oeuvre. It’s there in the gender-bending work he did with Bowery; in his dance to ‘Heroin’ by the Velvet Underground; in his 2001 comeback show Before and After: The Fall; and in his charged response to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. It’s there, all of it, in him.

The youngest of five children born to dairy farmers in rural Aberdeenshire, Scotland, Clark’s was never a conventional path, having arrived at the Royal Ballet School after attending daily dance lessons in the town nearest to his parent’s farm: “I was a sensitive child and a magnet for bullying,” he shrugs.

Ensconced as a boarder at London’s Royal Ballet School, he’d train all week then go to punk concerts on weekends: “I was drawn to theatrical acts like Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Sex Pistols. So there was this dual thing going on that later I was able to bring together.”

Aged 17, Clark jumped – jetéd - ship and joined Ballet Rambert, visibly shaking throughout his first solo. Once he could channel his nerves he went freelance, devising work that was big on extremes: sacred and profane, formal and free. Founding his own company meant making work he could perform in as well.

In 1987 he and Bowery took No Fire Escape in Hell to Australia for six weeks. Critics, for the most part, hated it. “I was trying to highlight the sexual nature of dance,” says Clark, whose company last visited Australia in 2010 with another (wildly acclaimed) rock’n’roll triptych, come, been and gone. “I felt that dance had denied its sexuality in order to be taken seriously. I don’t need do it now.

“I’ve always admired artists whose work changes over time, like T.S Eliot or Rembrandt. Or Patti Smith and David Bowie. I met Bowie a few years before he died; the first thing he said to me was, ‘Michael, this rock’n’roll-costume-make-up-dancing thing, it will never catch on’.”

Clark still makes the work on his own body first. Sometimes he forgets to warm up properly and hurts himself (“I get twinges”) but he has no plans to stop anytime soon.

“I’m a non-dancer now; I have the spirit but not the capacity. But I can still do it enough to know how it feels to be inside it, which is what counts. I don’t want to be asking my dancers to do something impossible. I’m never going to be sitting in a chair telling people what to do.”

That’s not rock’n’roll, I say.

“No,” says Clark with a grin. “It really isn’t.”

First published by The Australian

Image: Jake Walters, Capture One PRO

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