Michael Clark, Royal Ballet New Works

Friday morning and I’m still delighted and exhausted by seeing Michael Clark’s Come, Been and Gone at the Barbican last night. I’m not surprised this was the knock out show of Edinburgh last year.

Clark is master of a sophisticated visual and dance language, which is strongly rooted in 1970s America.  It has non-stop invention. There were many moments where I thought – “I have never seen that before”, moments that flooded me with dance memories, high octane moments, moments of pure adrenalin that left me high well into the early hours.

There is something like a hundred costumes, seemingly changing with every lighting state, illustrating every idea to express Clark’s highly personal and autobiographical narrative (from ‘swamp’ to a state of apotheosis) … costume and lighting and music and choreography become interchangeable, sensational and assured. The sheer number of costumes and the invention within them is that important Clark ingredient of excess.

The sexy smooth silver leggings of the poster are jaw dropping in real life; leotard and tights which appear normal female dance apparel until a male dancer comes on wearing the same thing (then you see it’s a unitard with an Opie-esque ‘graphic’ of a satin leotard sewn on); tight breeches where the cut gives the semblance of a cod piece caught in braces; striped unitards – each individually working with the dancers’ body shapes, lengths of fabric falling down between legs: all daring, varied – these are brash experiments so brash they couldn’t possibly fail.

Charles Atlas’ lighting is phenomenal – it takes atmospheres well beyond the edge of the stage, and has an intensity, a colour which hits the sweet spot.  At one point a stage that had been grey for a good while, just begins to bleed into colour: a backlit green (it’s pretty hard to figure out what kind of green) – hits the top of backcloth and drains down it, until it pervades and lightens to a kind of pea soup…it’s judged absolutely perfectly, emotively.

The visual language also plays with the scale of the dancers, altering their stage presence. It can make them larger, smaller, isolated, or distinct life-forms, part of an eco system – moving around, Cunningham-like creatures in the sea. Kate Coyne, head to toe in ochre with needles sticking out of her, has a looming presence in Heroin; seeming to emanate from her is a simpering, dark and potent light, which extends well beyond the edge of the stage, making every movement painful to watch. At other times the dancers are like ants, almost meaningless against the huge projection of Bowie singing Heroes, lost in the sub-bass of the sound system and the lyrics which speak so powerfully to us. The projection ends, restoring the presence of the dancers, making them bigger even.

It’s extraordinary. It’s an opus, which just keeps coming and coming, and just when you thought you had reached the climax of Heroes, there are two more sections which utterly surpass everything which comes before.

The first is Michael Clark himself dancing right at the front of the stage under the words INTERMISSION; it’s special, it has an integrity and an intensity (qualities you get when a choreographer suddenly appears in their own work), both modest and outrageous, and takes us into an entirely different language … the unexpectedness of it reminds me that sometimes meaning lies in difference. In fact all the narrative surprises of which this is just one, seem born out of invention and experimentation rather than an intention to shock: Clark’s dance language is one of pure art. In the final section (Aladdin Sane, Jean Genie)– we are lost in endless mesmeric colour fields.  Orange metallic figures on orange, a snap fade to orange figures against cyan that makes your heart leap.

All of this is about wanting to see the work right at the edge (in its most full meaning), present. Work where you can hear the voice, the individual. In Clark’s case the language is knowing, it corresponds with the music, it’s rude, cheeky and unashamed and extremely, extremely present.

It’s not often you get to see a show where this is the case. Cunningham always had it. Forsythe’s Impressing the Czar has it in ambundance. Come, Been and Gone is very personal. Michael Clark puts himself into it completely. He is completely himself, and yet pays homage to the learning, the experiences and the people he learnt from. Almost as if he is saying: “this is everything that’s important about me”. For the audience the effect was life-affirming.

Over at The Linbury, The Royal Ballet is showing new works by young choreographers. It’s the hot dance ticket of the week. I find the chance to see this programme of emerging work an incredibly special and valuable experience that I would not want to miss.  The past two years have been a barometer for the developing voice of Liam Scarlett and Jonathan Watkins leading to their main stage works for 2010 (sadly I missed the Watkins).  The dancers have been particularly encouraged by Wayne McGregor to see other art forms, exhibitions and other kinds of dance; working in the Linbury gives the choreographers the resources (and I mean resources, not budget) to start working with designers to develop visual language which extends beyond the movement.

More designers are involved than last year, and it pays off too. This is also about getting things out of your system. These are not intended to be finished, perfect pieces, for there is nothing more daunting than being given a main stage commission without several opportunities to find out what works and what doesn’t.  This can mean ‘trying all the toys in the pram’ if you haven’t had that opportunity (dramatically more expensive on the main stage!). But you need to try all these things if you are going to end up with the kind of mastery of language, the ability to endlessly invent visually, musically and choreographically, of a Cunningham, Forsythe or a Clark.

With my thoughts much about work where you can hear the voice, the individual, Kristen McNally once again demonstrates a clearly defined present voice: she understands how to use the particular stage of the Linbury in a dance theatre which draws on her own particular world of pop parody and quotation. Slava Samodurov, about to premiere his first piece for the Mikhailovsky Ballet in July with the same creative team, is outward looking, really curious about the world about him both in design and choreography, and yet remains true to his classical Russian roots.

Photos © Jake Walters (Benjamin Warblis, publicity shot for Come, Been and Gone) & Dave Morgan (Kristen McNally rehearsing with Thomas Whitehead for Don’t hate the Player, Hate the Game).

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