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How the subversive dancer Michael Clark upended – then took over – the arts establishment

A new retrospective of Michael Clark explores the dancer's legacy as both maverick and muse. 

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What must it feel like to know everyone is in love with you? Because aside from his prodigious dance talent and punky iconoclasm, it is the disarming and dangerous sexiness of Michael Clark that radiates out of the Barbican’s new retrospective. The coterie of artists and scene figures featured are caught in Clark’s orbit while he pirouettes and jetés seductively among them.

More than a traditional principal dancer, Clark combined classical balletic expertise with 1980s club culture, as well as his Scottish roots, to shake up British dance and become one of the stars of the era. By incorporating outrageous drag, fashion, pop, gay sub-culture, unashamed sexuality and the odd bare bum, Clark was an enfant terrible during the time of Mrs Thatcher and Section 28. Now approaching 60, and with a CBE, like many of his generation this “wunderkind of the British new wave” is inevitably part of the establishment. The show marks 15 years of his dance company’s partnership with the Barbican, where it has continued to innovate and surprise. How do you stage a retrospective of a dancer, someone intrinsically tricky to pin down? Unlike, say, the V&A’s more biographical Bowie or McQueen shows, the curators (working closely with Clark) look back at his career through the gaze of the artists with whom he’s worked. As such, we’re treated to snapshots and impressions of a life ranging from performance footage to painted portraits.

Most of the ground floor is filled with a looping nine-screen film installation, A Prune Twin (2020), by US film-maker Charles Atlas, who pioneered media-dance and has worked closely with Clark throughout his career. It’s a collage-y compilation of two seminal films about Clark, Hail the  New Puritan (1986) and Because We Must (1989); a riotous, occasionally disorienting mash-up that plunges the viewer into the underground London of the 1980s. The first is a fictionalised documentary about the lives of Clark and his friends, who take on exaggerated personas, with Clark rehearsing by day and clubbing by night. It is a glimpse into a shabby but glitteringly creative incarnation of the capital. The second blends Clark’s high-art ballet, outrageous burlesque performances by Leigh Bowery, nudity and a piano singalong.

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Another room recreates the set for I Am Curious, Orange (1988), Clark’s collaboration with the post-punk band the Fall. Set to their tracks, the performance combined huge pop art McDonald’s hamburgers and sad acid house faces with BodyMap costumes, and a striking dance routine. The whole work is two fingers up to the rampant consumerism of the Thatcher era. 

There are two rooms by the artist Sarah Lucas, a long-time friend of Clark. Her sculpture Cnut (2004) is a concrete cast of him aged 42, sitting on the loo smoking a fag – an older, rawer presentation of the dancer unable to hold back the tide of time. He moved in with Lucas after a rocky few years battling addiction, and was enlisted to help stick cigarettes on to the gnomes, roosters and phalluses we see here. It was his incompetence at this, along with her exhortation to him to make the worst ballet possible, that helped propel Clark back to the stage. Lending a hand (or two) back, Lucas went on to design huge mechanical masturbating arms for Clark’s piece Before and After: the Fall (2001). Cult fashion label BodyMap had a similarly symbiotic relationship with Clark, de-signing costumes for his performances while he and his company featured in their campaigns and wild fashion shows. The label’s close-fitting unitards are shown  alongside a series of T-shirt dresses by Leigh Bowery for Clark’s piece Mmm… (1992), featuring dadaist, gender-queer slogans. 

The photographer Wolfgang Tillmans often seems to be the glue that binds this scene, and his typically low-key portraits chronicle the era as much as they immortalise Clark. There are intimate 1990s shots of Clark and friends, stills of performances and dance poses in unlikely settings. In Michael, Sebastian Street (2014), an older Clark, hand on hip, stares defiantly at the lens – no less pro-vocative than his puckish younger self. 

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I love much of the work on show here – there’s quieter painting by Elizabeth Peyton and Peter Doig, too – but the archive materials and documentary footage are most compelling. A room of posters and programmes spans Clark’s career, from shows in Edinburgh to Sadler’s Wells, and many in the Barbican. Bright graphics and fierce imagery establish the dance company’s identity, the kilted Clark its signature brand. You’re hit by a wave of nostalgia for the riches of Britain’s performing arts, now in crisis. 

What you can’t get enough of is Clark dancing. His early choreographer Richard Alston talks about Clark’s preternatural abilities: his long limbs and extraordinary coordination. Will such talent be nurtured in the future, or is it to be the stuff of museums? Or per-haps, as with Clark and his gang, we’ll see a new explosion of creativity born of austerity. In a time of great uncertainty for the arts, this show serves as both paean to the past and an urgent call to arms. 

“Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer” runs at the Barbican Art Gallery until 3 January 2021

Thomas Calvocoressi is a sub editor at the New Statesman and writes about visual arts for the magazine.

This article appears in the 16 October 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Can Joe Biden save America?