Michael Clark: Dundee V&A Exhibition on Ballet’s Bad Boy
MICHAEL Clark – the bad boy of dance in the 1980s and 1990s – achieved iconic status decades ago. The gay son of an Aberdonian farmer, he rose from the Scottish country dancing of his youth, via a classical ballet training, to become one of contemporary dance’s most acclaimed performers and choreographers.
In doing so, Clark has created a body of work – including collaborations with artists like Australian performance artist and fashion designer Leigh Bowery, post-punk rock band The Fall, and English filmmaker Peter Greenaway – that s is anchored in the consciousness of aficionados of the contemporary avant-garde.
There can be very few artists whose work lends itself so easily to extensive exhibition of video, visual art, costume and set design, music, interviews and promotional material.
First shown at London’s Barbican in 2020-21, Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer has now arrived in Scotland, where it will run at the V&A Dundee until September. Without a doubt, this is an exhibition worthy of the fabulous architecture of the V&A building on Tayside.
Covering the entirety of Clark’s outstanding career, the show is exceptional in its breadth, diversity, dynamism, humor and sheer intelligence in curation and presentation. For those uninitiated in all things Clark, the exhibit will, I’m sure, be a brilliant and energizing introduction.
For those who have followed his career with avid interest since the early days, it is nothing short of a house of wonders. There were times in the exhibition – especially the room dedicated to the great rock ballet I Am Curious, Orange, which Clark did with The Fall – when I felt like I was dead and went to heaven.
This dance work – which was a smash hit at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1988 – was made in response to a commission from Sadler’s Wells Dance Center in London to create a piece commemorating the tercentenary of William of Orange’s ascension to the throne of England in 1688. the result, as you can see in the V&A exhibit, was a show in which Clark danced the part of a William clad in shimmering orange, autumn guitarist Brix Smith was propelled on stage seated atop a huge Big Mac and the dancers represented King Billy’s place in Scotland. sectarian folklore by performing in the shirts of Glasgow football clubs, Rangers and Celtic.
Wandering happily through an exhibition and suddenly being accosted by the fabulously colorful decor of this ballet – with a black and white checkered floor and a huge box of Heinz baked beans – is an experience not to be missed. Add to that video of the show and The Fall’s music – Mark E Smith’s Mancunian grunt, working class grunt and all – and the venue alone is worth the price of admission.
However, there is more to the 14 halls of the exhibition than that, much more. The scale and variety of works on display are extremely impressive.
The Opening Room, for example, is a large-scale video installation created by American videographer and director Charles Atlas. It includes a series of nine large video screens suspended from the ceiling. Each screen has an audio speaker above it.
While strolling, we oscillate between film of Clark’s performances and “anti-documentary” of the dancer and his friends engaged in a fictional version of their daily life. The sound moves from one screen to another – from the spoken word to the rock scores of Clark’s choreographies – succeeding in its intention to immerse the viewer.
The video of Bowery – a fabulous force of nature and uncompromising queer radical, who was a role model and muse for the great painter Lucian Freud and a friend and artistic collaborator of Boy George – reminds us how delightfully the Aussie was scandalous. performance approach. Its gloriously garish movement and design perfectly accompanied Clark’s liberated ballet.
The room dedicated, in part, to Bowery’s costume creations (including a bullfighter’s jacket attached to a bright pink tutu) is a real treat. His death, aged just 33, from an AIDS-related illness in 1994 was a tragic loss.
Dance, music and cinema come together beautifully in the room that houses Sophie Fiennes’ film of current/SEE heavy rock choreography. To create this 1998 dance piece, Clark collaborated with American musician Susan Stenger and her wonderfully named (perhaps Spinal Tap-inspired) guitar band Big Bottom.
In the exhibit, Fiennes’ 2001 film of the room is projected on a large screen with large Ampeg amplifiers (as used by Big Bottom in the film) on either side. The hyper-stylish costumes and mesmerizing angular movement of Clark’s choreography combine beautifully with the almost mesmerizing, roaring repetition of Stenger’s music. I was glad I declined the kind offer of earplugs made by a V&A staff member upon entering the exhibit (the music is “very loud,” she warned me).
Those with a sensitive hearing disposition may want to have earplugs handy, just in case. However, for my part, I thoroughly enjoyed getting the full rock concert effect of an extraordinary exhibition soundtrack that includes The Beatles, The Velvet Underground, David Bowie and T-Rex, plus many , a lot of The Fall.
Bold and elegant artists inspire bold and elegant imagery, as evidenced by the room filled with posters, programs and other promotional materials for the Michael Clark Company. Elsewhere, there’s joy to be taken in excerpts from Peter Greenaway’s lavish 1991 film Prospero’s Books (which is based on Shakespeare’s play The Tempest), throughout which Clark dances the role of the righteously indignant slave. Caliban.
An outrageously rich feast for the eyes and ears, this breathtaking spectacle is a fabulous reminder of how pioneering and radical Clark was throughout his career. A quintessential icon of queer culture and an exceptional artistic collaborator, he deserves to be celebrated in an exceptionally brilliant exhibition such as this.
Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer is at the V&A Dundee until September 4: vam.ac.uk/dundee