mc is … [michael clark sadlers wells 2001]

Michael Clark Before and After: The Fall

Sadlers Wells 2001

‘mc is …’ was a specially commissioned publication sold in place of a programme during the performances at Sadlers Wells. It included the text that follows, a ‘poster’ of images/stills by Tom Gidley and was designed by hyperkit.

mc is …

by Guy Mannes-Abbott


mc is.

mc is not.

mc is contrary.

mc has “the quirk that makes him innovate,” as Mark E. Smith once said.

mc is alive!

mc is a soft and muscular, polite and prankish, economical but very present presence in person. He’s calm, still, focused, good humoured and yet at the mercy of temperamental appetites.

mc is an utterly mesmerising dancer with a unique physical presence on stage. For two decades, dancing solo or leading his various companies, he’s done things like no one else and like no-one else can. Surrounded by the exceptional dancers of his own companies -boy friends and good friends- he’s all on his own: a singular and therefore solitary figure.

mc is consistent/inconsistent.

mc is a dancer whose earliest choreography famously mixed elements from his schooling in classical and contemporary ballet with traditional Scottish dancing, as well as the pogo -punk’s incarnation. I see untrained gestures like the sashay and other camp elements in his work from the mid 1980s. I see traces of voguing and break dancing in his work from the late 1980s and early 1990s. All the work bears an enabling influence from visual art, both in terms of the languages of installation and performance art as well as in terms of licence. But there is spirit in his dance and it’s something more, something other than all these things.

mc is a choreographer.

mc can be astonishing.

mc sits close to Jean Cocteau in my mind. I was reading Francis Steegmuller’s biography of the director of Orphee and Blood of the Poet in the summer of 1986. It tells a story of the precocious but unformed Cocteau and his pursuit of Diaghilev, the charismatic impresario behind the Russian Ballet, in 1912. Diaghilev repelled Cocteau in a Parisian street with two politely chosen words: “Astound me!”

mc performed No Fire Escape in Hell at Sadlers Wells in September 1986, dancing to music by The Fall and with Laibach performing on stage. It was a stunning performance that met the command to “astound me” head on and is one of the most remarkable artistic events I have witnessed. It was a privilege to be there then.

mc is sashaying.

mc is perfectly poised, turning dance inside-out with immaculate precision.

mc is getting away with it.

mc can be disappointing. In 1986, he also performed in Mark E. Smith’s drama, Hey Luciani, along with Leigh Bowery and friends. Here mc explored the other end of the same spectrum as brilliance: getting away with it.

mc was pushing into, creating, new territory and discovering how much he could achieve and how little he needed to wing it. One is the obverse of the other; they are the twin-products of creative necessity at its most ambitious. It’s about creating space that becomes uniquely yours to maneuver in with complete freedom.

mc was a peculiarly pretty young man.

mc is a peculiarly pretty middle aged man, whose face retains a kind of angelic innocence even though age has leveled back its striking features, in particular that kissed-ripe mouth.

mc possesses a miraculous smile. It cracks open his pretty head with a dash of ear to ear bliss. It seems to express an ecstatic beatitude. It is a remarkable thing: if it also conferred love it would melt you on the spot.

mc is no angel but he retains a complex and necessary innocence that generates and protects the faith in him required to do what he must.

mc is a Sex Pistol.

mc is no longer wearing the big nappy pin in the top of his right ear that he wore through the 1990s, his 4th decade. Good with journalists, he told one that it was a reminder of his punk roots. This is obviously not simply true nor simply a joke but a sassy remark that ricochets off the truth, giving it angles. This is why, at an age when some people start wearing leather trousers, he could get away with it.

mc is a Sex Pistol. Bored but quick-witted he’s responding to a question posed, safety-pin-in-cheek, by The Face. It’s the summer of 1992 and Michael Clark’s Modern Masterpiece [Mmm], including a dance choreographed around ‘Submission’, hits London. Asked which Sex Pistol he would want to be, he said “Myself. I am a Sex Pistol.” It’s a more telling response than it appears. Rather than accepting a likeness, he’s insistent on taking the place of the original.

mc looks like a punk ballerina in Charles Atlas’ film, Hail the New Puritans [1985]. In a sweetly funny scene, his friends Leigh Bowery and Trojan are dressing to go out with fantastic flare and mc appears in his bleeched mohican, Destroy t-shirt and leather jacket, kilt and big DMs and says “I feel under-dressed”. Amidst friendly flurries of angular, multi-dimensional bitching Trojan says in a voice oozing camp: “Punk’s dead Mi-chael!”

mc is routinely described in boxing’s tabloid terms. So, he’s not The Dark Destroyer or The Louisville Lip but endlessly and forever The Punk Ballerina, etcetera, ad nauseum. It’s a one-dimensional, laughably reductive approach.

mc is not a Sex Pistol.

mc is an original.

mc is a choreographer.

mc’s originality is visible in his movements, his rhythms, his use of space as well as time. It’s there in the coming together and his taking apart, the explosive vitality and negative moves, shapes and forms he conjures.

mc’s originality is embodied in the elegant awkwardness, the creative undoing, that is his dance. It’s in the anti-gestures and movements and the way they amass to form something affirmative of life lived dangerously. It’s there in the attitude it projects though not in the way that critics identify with such knowing certainty: loving it, hating it. To the extent to which there is attitude in his dance, it’s an attitude that refuses distinctions between dance and life, ugly and beautiful, etc. A strategic, side-stepping attitude that rejects the obvious and so should make you suspicious of signals, especially anything overt.

mc is, for example, a wanker.

mc is a wanker. Penises, phalluses: painted onto costumes, held tauntingly in the hand or taking the form of glittering Leigh Bowery costume teapots [in Because We Must 1987], abound in his work. In New Puritan from 1984, which forms the first part of Before and After: The Fall, and in the new work for which Sarah Lucas has made a huge cast of mc’s fisted hand, there is -to be precise- choreographed masturbation. This is the kind of thing that people describe as attitude, but that expresses a certain blindness. These in-your-face signals are meant as distractions, but rather than diverting from a lack of seriousness, they achieve the opposite and allow mc to indulge his serious commitment to making art. The diversion is really a psychological sleight of hand. So, the badges of attitude do signal a kind of insecurity but not in the way that is commonly presumed.

mc has got unusually strong, extending feet. They are the enablers and foundations of his athleticism, grace and control. They give him singular elegance and height on stage. Without them, off stage, he is much smaller.

mc is brilliantly reptilian as a gobbing Caliban in Peter Greenaway’s deadening pratfall of a film, Prospero’s Books [1991].

mc moves in time and space like no one else -even confined to a fake rock in a movie.

mc is, you see, a choreographer.

mc says: “Stop there, you should stop there before you move on … You have to go down, you have to go up, you have to go down … I’m not convinced you’ve got the rhythm … Look! Did you see that? I want you to do more there … There ought to be someone else with you there to get the rhythm right, ba dum … ba dum … ba dum.”

mc says these things warmly, sharing hearty laughter and staccato giggles with his dancers.

mc says these things very precisely, totally committed to solving flaws in movements -in terms of the body and the stage- and rhythm in particular. It’s a matter of finding a way to do something that has not been done before and to do it perfectly.

mc says these things about choreography that is exceptionally difficult and which has been danced with impeccable sublimity before. You wouldn’t want to fail him.

mc’s voice is soft and yet it’s the sound of him stripping everything to the bone of something particular which it is seeking. Something irreducible. So, it’s soft and hard. It’s also just there, it doesn’t project or thrust itself over distances. It’s a voice used to intimacy, shaped for close quarters and indulged by listeners. In that way it’s quite indistinct. It does contain notable emphases but they’re softening ones: o’s are elongated into black holes, words like “doin’” are marshmallowed. The accent is mostly urbanised, apart from a gentle Scottish burr on the r’s and very occasional intrusions of non-urban sound-slips.

mc is and always was a choreographer.

mc is anxious.

mc is probably, possibly, evidently, certainly entitled to be, anxious. For the first time the Michael Clark Dance Company is going to perform without him on stage. For a temperamental risk-taker this is a supremely risky, up-for-auction, moment of truth. Previously mc has pushed the bounds knowing that his own dancing is so startling that it can rescue a performance, if necessary.

mc is not dancing.

mc is no longer dancing. Now we will all see if there is an imprint left after his own feet have been removed from the performance.

mc will not be dancing. For Before and After the 5 female dancers that make up his new company are performing the Before work from New Puritan. New Puritan uses music by The Fall from the early 1980s from Dragnet, through Slates to Hip Priest and Kamerads. At the time, mc and company performed for the band on The Old Grey Whistle Test, and these dances are the centrepiece of Hail the New Puritans.

mc explodes with startling energy in these dances. Aged 22 and with his newly founded company mc has everything to play for, nothing to lose, complete faith in what he’s doing and good fortune is his ally. There are loopy sets designed by his intimate friend Trojan, also the inspiration behind faces painted with misplaced noses and mouths. There are Taboo-era costumes by Leigh Bowery. mc is all glitter boots, green vinyl hat, proto-Madonna tits, and assless trousers. He’s surrounded by wigs and lipstick, y-fronts and Sue Barker tennis knickers, mohicans and more bare-assed cheek.

mc says about The Fall and his choreography: “I enjoy the simplicity of the actual music of The Fall, because it gives me a broader canvas as it were, to make whatever I want to on.”

mc dances butt-naked -to be precise- before fried egg tree-plants, half a lemon and huge hanging y-fronts.

mc is unarsed, not arsed.

mc displays his ambition before us and we see all the stretch marks of making. These dances captured an extraordinary promise.

mc doesn’t care and cares very much. Mark E. Smith squeaks “unclean! unclean!” ‘Spectre vs Rector’ is a circus display of nerve and confidence; graceful set pieces are cut against mc and partner dancing wildly together, the entire company wear gorgeously excessive costumes. Scratching his own arse, licking and biting his dance partner’s, mc sashays in catwalk, dance floor style.

mc is bare-arsed, pirouetting slowly just so’s you know. So’s you know what?

mc is signaling something beyond the critic-blinding arse to other dimensions. And the signal is the thing that is absent, the critical hole in the trousers, where everything beyond dance is. It tells us that there is more to dance than mere dance itself. Sometimes it takes brazen nakedness and club-couture to do it. This is a performance-event that contains dance as well as something else, and the something else is extremely important. It is life -with things beyond the sealed world of dance, elements that exceed the strict execution of technique- that is being staged here. Those improper, contingently intrusive elements circle out and around, returning to reinvigorate the dance itself.

mc is, in a complex and convoluted sense, “tarrying with the negative” as Slavoj Zizek describes it.

mc is dancing along the pavement which becomes a beachy stage. I’ve seen it myself.

mc is dancing the street onto a staged beach. Seen that too.

mc dances solo, bare-arsed again in a short wide frilly apron, blond wig and make-up. It’s ‘Prole Art Threat’ and movements are fast, frantic, with backward jerks and characteristic reversals. It starts to look like tape played backwards, and in the film of it, it is. It’s ‘Gramme Friday’ and movements are stiff, twirling, sober and finally resolved in symmetrical formations. They’re interrupted by mc doing The Candid Camera, with a bowl of goldfish carrots, plucked, wiggled and swallowed, with a shimmying wink.

mc is dancing to The Fall, of all the music ever produced in the world. Their trademark is jerky, jagged, awkward, refusing, deliberately discomforting, belligerent, pissed-off music. Music by the man whose head expanded, who is sticking to a gang of one, will cut a hole in the rain for you and likes people who live in kitchens and halls.

mc develops these qualities into movements that are jagged and broken, sudden and quotidian, as well as very difficult to do. He choreographs dance listening to the rhythms in his own head. He does it because he can: one of the many subtexts is that if you can dance to this you can dance to anything. And you can!

mc is alive!

mc is dancing to life, expressing an appetite for living it dangerously.

mc is dancing to live, to feel alive and because it’s what being alive is for him.

mc approaches life with dance, it’s all he has to say about it, to it, of it.

mc is a choreographer. When he danced these pieces there was a perfect naturalness to his movements, an amazing poise amidst the perversity. In the more complex dances, for ‘Ludd Gang’ and ‘Copped It’ in which the whole company dances, your eye begins and ends on mc. Other dancers are exceptional, other dancers can perform these awkward moves, other dancers can do attitude. But there is and was something else about mc’s performance.

mc has unique presence on stage.

mc is a choreographer and the ‘something else’ is partly in the dance, the natural awkward brilliance of it is embedded in the choreography. If you subtract mc from his choreography you lose his unique physical presence but you’re left with his thinking, his rhythms, his approach to space and appetite for newness.

mc is in rehearsal with dancers who are about the age he was when he formed his first company in 1982. They’re serious, committed, ambitious and eager to prove it but they’re about to dance mc’s role and seminal early work. They’re all in this together, huddled around a video playback monitor, laughing and joshing. It’s an endearing sight.

mc has swum oceans of publicity.

mc often talks football to journalists. Talking about Mmm and the pivoting of much of the dance on the pelvis he compares the severe angles and speed achieved to the footwork of Maradonna. He’s often talked of dancing at Ibrox stadium at half-time.

mc can be candid about his self abusing usage of drugs, in particular. He says; “I don’t know how much choice there was involved,” during his years of addiction. “I mean; it was beyond my control.” Candid too, about falling through the floor after Leigh Bowery’s death in 1994. About the years living incognito with his mother back home in Scotland. About losing people and things. About being broke. About surviving.

mc reminds me of a Will Oldham song, ‘I am a cinematographer’, performed by Palace Brothers on Days in the Wake from 1994. Will sings “I was a big old bear once … I walked away from everything that shone … only to find that everything had gone. Now I am a cinematographer.”

mc talks often about Bessie Clark, their closeness, her spunky solidity. He’s proud of the central importance of their relationship. She’s there in the films, and on one occasion -in Mmm– he literally pulled her into his work.

mc often talks of self destructiveness: that of his alcoholic father and of artists compelled to explore new horizons in their work. Everything is at stake in that compulsion to innovate.

mc’s own words contain elemental truths and consistent claims for his work. No-one else’s words get very close to conjuring what he does, what is witnessed in his dance, what it is.

mc says quite often that he wants to remind himself why he needed to dance in the first place. Every new piece is built from this recovered need.

mc says that he and Bowery would egg-on each other to over extend themselves in various ways. This odd English construction: ‘egging-on’, is a key note in his work and was bound up with the great friendship which ended at the time of Mmm.

mc believes dance involves a language that can’t be reduced to black and white. Hence the difficulty in finding words for his dance’s awkward shapes, turned-inwards back-to-front movements and promiscuousness. He talks of the challenge this poses and of wanting to recover the first human impulses to dance.

mc believes in the necessity of dance.

mc believes it’s the artist’s job to report back from those dangerous regions of life: the outer limits.

mc lives his dance fully, adventurously, recklessly.

mc is an artist. This is the highest compliment I could pay him as a dancer and I’ve thought hard and long about it.

mc admires Nijinsky and in particular the way he rejected what he knew as a dancer to choreograph Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring in 1913.

mc takes risks and a typically bold one was his remodeling of Nijinsky in Mmm. In particular, he remade the ‘dance to the death’, the choreography for which drew critical praise for the show. For mc this was a dance of life, of change, seasonal and otherwise. Cocteau was obsessed with Nijinsky who was the star of Diaghilev’s company, and it was on hearing Stravinsky’s original music for The Rite of Spring that he said he understood the “state of surprise” that Diaghilev must have meant when he instructed him to “Astound me!”

mc generated that same state of surprise in me when I saw Mmm at the Kings Cross Depot in 1992. It thrilled me with its possibilities, potency and sheer vigour as well as the difficult precision of the dance. It was a gorgeous event. There are other criteria for excellence of course, but this was again astounding, exciting, exhilarating to witness and to feed from.

mc is a choreographer. His choreography has become cleaner, more concentrated, stripped back and more to do with the body itself. This was particularly evident in current/SEE [1999] in which he performed to the music of Big Bottom, a 5-piece band of bass guitarists. In much of that work it seemed that the dance had come home to mc’s body, and he had come home to his most elemental appetite for dancing.

mc’s work is about being alive.

mc’s work is the work of an artist. However, of course, dance work has its own very particular rigours and disciplines. To work hard at dance is to mean something very specific. It’s almost unique in its combination of ancient disciplines -mountains that have to be climbed- and a chronologically early cut off point that is more the domain of the pop singer or the model. An old dancer is no longer a dancer. They are, if they’re lucky or brilliant, a choreographer.

mc is a choreographer.

mc is choreographing new work.

mc is in uncharted territory: choreographing work that he will not dance. It may prove a liberation. Now that complex accumulated style, rhythmic intelligence and innovating appetite can focus on the thing in front of it, as opposed to things around it. It can shape the material it has before it, force it to do the highly particular thing that it wants. Find solutions for difficult movements, rhythms and sequences.

mc is choreographing new work around old musical favourites.

mc is making work which has expanded away from the body again while still evincing new concentrations and clarities.

mc is cheating probability with this new work. He still feels the necessity to make dance. He’s facing forwards and has things to prove, challenges to meet, solutions to find in the form of other people’s perfectly-tuned bodies.

mc is a choreographer.

mc is not dancing.

mc is alive in the imprint of his feet that have left the stage.

mc lives in the shapes, the rhythms before you. They are many things, including unmistakable. This is mc’s leap into the future. This is his new horizon, to be approached with sashaying, awkward, difficult, funny brilliance.

mc is not.

mc is.

mc was.

mc is.

© The Author. 2000.

One thought on “mc is … [michael clark sadlers wells 2001]

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