Freya Hellier: Welcome to Nothing Concrete - the Barbican podcast - here to inspire you to discover and love the arts with weekly episodes of archive finds and themed series.
The Scottish Dancer and choreographer Michael Clark has maintained a compelling and radical presence on the British cultural scene since his meteoric rise as a young dancer in the 80s.
From his early training in Scottish traditional dance, through a classical education at the Royal Ballet, his immersion in club culture and his collaborations across genres, Michael’s work is at once funny, provocative, rigorous and singular. Here he is describing his work to Muriel Grey
Michael Clark: See what I like to do with my work is not say this is how I feel, this is my solution or whatever, it’s rather to rouse the whole thing and stir it up a bit. You see, there’s no such thing as a misinterpretation. The thing with movement is that it’s got so many different meanings for different people...it’s such a hard question because you’re not dealing with specific things like you are with words. That’s why it appeals to me so much, dance, because it’s got all those different levels of meaning.
Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer is the first major exhibition to explore his work and collaborations and it’s on at the Barbican now before travelling to the V&A Dundee in October 2021.
I’m producer, Freya Hellier and I’ve been talking to some of the key figures in Michael Clark’s creative world.
In this episode, I met a fellow choreographer who worked with the 17-year old Michael right at the start of his career.
Richard Alston: I'm Richard Alston. And I'm a choreographer who's been doing it for a long time. I became resident choreographer with what in those days was called Ballet Rambert. It’s now just called Rambert. And that's where Michael came to dance. So that's how I first worked with Michael Clark.
But I really knew him best when he was young and just starting out.
FH: Still in his early teens, Michael left the family farm in Aberdeen to study at the Royal Ballet School in London in 1975…
MC: And I initially thought I’d stay there a year to improve my posture for my Scottish dancing which for me then, was the most important thing. But within a couple of months I was hooked. and wanted to be a star of the Royal Ballet company. The first two years I spent there I worked very hard and I think I probably learnt a great deal. But I began to feel I was ready to do something else. After 4 years I was definitely ready to do some work.
RA: He had trouble at the Royal Ballet School, he mentions that in one of the videos in the exhibition. He was a bad boy. And he enjoyed being a bad boy. He didn't actually leave then, because Richard Glasstone, who's a very influential teacher on Michael...Richard taught at White Lodge, which was the lower Royal Ballet school. And he took Michael under his wing. I think what's important is that he told the Royal Ballet School, look, we can't lose such an exceptionally good dancer, he may be, not as well behaved as you would like. He used to escape off, out at night, and so on, because it's a boarding school, the White Lodge, so he undertook to take care of Michael and keep him in the school.
But Michael was restless. And Michael went one summer to do a summer course, led by a contemporary choreographer. And there was also John Chesworth, who at that time, was the director of the Ballet Rambert.
And I think almost anyone who saw Michael dance said, Oh, do you want to come and work with us. And that's what John did. And Michael decided that's what he would do. He wouldn't finish his training at the Royal Ballet School. He was impatient to get started and be on stage.
FH: Michael was keen to push himself and boundaries but his rebellious streak sat on top of a very secure technical foundation.
RA: He had all sorts of natural gifts. He had wonderful line through the body. He didn't make it showy. He just, I can remember, you know, he would take up as what's called a pointe tondu at the back, he’d stretch his leg to the back. And there'd be this amazing line through his, let's face it very attractive body. He was a very nice looking young man. And he danced superbly.
He had all the fast footwork that you get from Scottish dancing, because that's what he did when he was a child. And in fact, the very first time I saw Michael dance, it was at the Albert Hall, in a huge, great jamboree of folk dancers from all over the British Isles. Lots of very, very burly Scottish men in kilts, but very light of foot. Out came this tall, long necked, long legged creature in a kilt with two swords, put them down on the floor in the middle of the Albert Hall. And you could feel the whole hall watching him, he was amazing.
But the next time that I saw him, was when I went to Rambert, and they told me that he'd been to this summer course. And that John Chesworth asked if he would join the company. And what I remember is that the administrator, my boss, said to me, Well, we're not, you know, we can't suddenly take an extra dancer so we're not going to hire this young boy until Christmas. And I said, Well, I'm making my new piece in November, I'd been invited to make a new piece for the first time there, I was still an outsider. And I said, I really know I want to work with this boy.
She said, Oh, well, then we'll have to fix something. And when I went into the studio to start rehearsals, on my way up the stairs, she put her head out of the office, and she said, I hope at least you're gonna make a solo on him or something, because we have booked him and it cost us money, you know. And I remember that to this day, because I went into the studio thinking, Well, basically, I thought, Oh, shit. Because I knew I could see how remarkable Michael was, but I had no idea about him as a person, or whether he'd be quick or whatever.
And that day, in the very first rehearsal, of making my first piece for Rambert, I made a large group piece, and then I sent everyone away. And I started making a solo for Michael. And Michael has spoken about that since and confessed how terrified he was.
MC: Initially when I first worked with Richard I didn’t understand what he was talking about. Because he spoke about movement much more internally than the teachers at the Royal Ballet School who talk from the outside...you look in the mirror and see the shape that you’re making. Richard talked more about what the body was actually doing than a movement.
RA: One of the things about Michael that's extraordinary is that he can do things that all sorts of dancers would find exhausting. And he looks very cool and very calm at all times. You can see that in all the wonderful films in the exhibition. He'll give you a broad grin. He'll wink. But he never looks exhausted and never looks fraught. And I always found that fascinating, and I think I pushed him as a choreographer. I tried to give him steps to do later on. That would be hard for him to do. And frankly, it was impossible. He just did everything.
This was a piece called Bell High. And I made this solo which was the opening of the piece, the curtain went up. And there was this young man. And he started this slow, beautiful, slow, elongated solo. And so everyone noticed him. And I remember a critic who I happened to know, was sitting next door to someone who actually was not only a critic, but the director of the Royal Ballet School. And after the piece, he turned to him, my friend and said, You must be very proud to see this boy doing so well. And this is years and years ago, now a very different school from what it is now, the director said, Oh, well, he took the easy option, you know. And I remember being very shocked, really, when I heard that.
MC: Well I think at that sort of difficult age of 15 / 16, I began to question where I was going, what I was going to end up doing...and looking around me and seeing dancers in the Royal Ballet and sort of, trying to figure out the kind of life I would lead if I did join the Royal Ballet, and it didn’t appeal to me.
RA: Life is very, very different now. All the students in all the training schools and the Royal Ballet included, they have to be prepared to do all sorts of work, because they have to go where the jobs are. In those days in 1979, you were supposed to dream of only one thing, and that was to join the Royal Ballet. So that's what he meant by taking the easy option. He didn't do the extra work to become a prince or whatever they would have hoped he would become at the Royal Ballet. He never joined the Royal Ballet
But Michael was restless, I would love to have worked with him longer. I worked with him for two seasons. And after he'd gone…. I did Soda Lake when he was in the company. And then afterwards, when he'd gone, I did Dutiful Ducks, which is another solo I made for him.
I'd always wanted to make this piece called Dutiful Ducks. It’s very short. It's only three minutes. And so when there was some kind of gala for dancing, Dance Umbrella Festival, I thought this would be a great opportunity to make this, this piece. And I know exactly the person who I'd love to do it. And Michael was free, and we worked together on it. And it's very, very fast. It's very, very challenging. When you look at the film of him, it looks like he just throws it off. But actually, it was very, very tough.
And other dancers who've done it since have to work very, very hard to do the steps. They’re very particular and they're very speedy, and they ride if you like, on the energy of the voice. And it was, as I say, I thought of it as my leaving present. I was aware saying, on you go good luck, do well. And so I've always had a fondness for that piece, both for the music, which I loved, the text sound, and also for the fact that I made it on Michael and I really enjoyed that.
And then he began to do his own work and began to work with Ellen, Ellen van Schuylenburch who you see a lot in the exhibition, you can see how wonderfully they work together. She was a real inspiration to Michael. And I think that's one of the marvellous things about the exhibition, you can see how he formed his company, and what a bond they had between them, and how hard they worked.
He became associated with the really amazing place called the Riverside Studios. And they could see what a remarkable dancer he was. And when he decided he'd had enough of working, because the reason I think he moved on was because Rambert was a repertory company. And so not all the work was what Michael wanted to do. And I understood that and I respected that at the time. I had no bad feeling about him going, I was disappointed. But, selfishly for myself. And he went to Riverside and Riverside supported him. It was a marvellous place down there in Hammersmith. And that's where Michael began to make work.
And then the exciting thing for me was that, really, to my astonishment, I suddenly ended up being director of Rambert in 1986. It happened all rather suddenly, there was a crisis and I was asked if I would help deal with the crisis. And I knew that the dancers needed looking after so I agreed. I agreed to do it temporarily and it turned out to last for six years. And early on, I think in my first season. I asked Michael if he would make something, and I actually asked him if he would make something along the lines of a piece that I'd seen called Do you, me I did. And that's what he did. And it became a piece called Swamp.
And I have to say, I remember the time being really, really pleased that he made a very steady and very well made piece of dance, beautiful movement, quite slow. And, and he separated if you like, from the dildos and the bare bums and the things which he was putting into his own company's work. And, and the result was he got very good reviews. And I guess I was very excited by that. Not because I think reviews are important. But I knew that Michael was a really good dancer and I wanted him to be taken seriously.
Well, Michael is fascinating because his dancing embodied things that were indeed very classical. And Richard Glasstone, who I mentioned, was a Cecchetti teacher. And Michael loved the language that Richard taught. And there's a very strong influence of Cecchetti on Michael's movement, and on the way he dances. And Cechetti was an Italian teacher, who made classical dance, very three dimensional, it had a flow to it, used the back wonderfully. It was something you could see very much in the work of Sir Frederick Ashton, who's also hugely influenced by Cecchetti. So you see that in Michael's work, definitely. You see it in the way Michael dances. So there was all this extraordinary formal skill. And then there was this sense of adventure.
I think because she came to London and performed at Riverside, he met Karole Armitage, and Karole danced for Merce Cunningham, and was a really, really strong dancer for Merce. Very, but she come from a ballet background, more of Balanchine, American choreographer Balanchine, and she danced for a company in Switzerland, where they've done a lot Balanchine work. But she had then embraced heavy rock music with a lot of sound. And she made very wild dance, which was, I suppose you would put it into the label punk. And Michael danced for her. And that's when I think his own style really suddenly broke out. Because you can see her influence, he makes it his own, but of course, Karole had all sorts of wonderful gifts, but she couldn't do Scottish dancing that she wouldn't necessarily have done Cechetti. And you see all of that in Michael’s language. So Michael’s language was a whole mixture of the things that had influenced him. And then he made them in his own voice.
FH: And that voice has matured…..
MC: I think my attitude’s changed over the years, at one time I really did think the only way I could make work was by ridiculing what had been done before because I really felt that any way of trying to communicate something emotional, or may spiritual ended up looking cliched. So I’ve been trying to find a way of my own that is pure but at the same time still hits home. And I found I had a couple of people in the company recently who aren’t trained dancers and just the kind of feedback I get from them has really made me realise that dance can put something across without being specifically related to real life.
RA: And the other thing, which I think was always important, was that as a dancer, he was very, very knowledgeable about dance. As a young man, he was much more interested in real life. And he was much more interested in some of the pretty wild people he would meet at the clubs that he would go to very often. And so he always wanted his dance to reach his friends in the clubs...that’s putting it too, too generally, but still. And that's why the music was always very full on music that Michael loved.
FH: And the musicians connected with Michael too, here’s Mark E Smith of The Fall interviewed in 1988 while they rehearsed their joint performance, I am Curious Orange:
Mark E Smith: The thing about Michael I think people forget, I mean - I’m no ballet expert but one thing about him is, he is actually very tight and he is very entertaining to somebody who knows nowt about ballet, like myself, or anybody else. And since I’ve known Mike, if you watch ballet...if you watch Swan Lake for instance, you see how slow they are, and almost turgid compared to him. Like he gets like 100 steps in like a fifth of the time.
RA: There's a short clip, in one of the videos, one of the films that Charlie Atlas was a wonderful filmmaker, who became devoted to Michael's work. And he made wonderful films of Michael. And in one scene, Michael is interviewed by someone called Dick Witts:
Dick Witts: What’s the best music to dance to?
MC: That’s not the point, I dance to what I like, you dance to what you like
RA: And, and that was very telling, I think, because he didn't, he didn't use music to have an effect. He used it because he loved it. And, you know, I was a much older man, and I didn't pretend to love it. It was something for much younger people, but that was okay. That was all right. And I think it was part of Michael's work. And I think it was part of the young dancers he worked with. And you get a very clear sense of that. In the really fascinating range of videos that there are in this in the spaces of the gallery.
I think Michael was adventurous. I think Michael was adventurous, which is a very healthy thing in a young person. Some of his adventures had a very bad effect on him. And he's, he's openly talked about that, you know, he's had quite heavy problems with addictions of one kind or another. But Michael has always gone for it. And what I found so really thrilling and exciting about this exhibition, is to be reminded very, very clearly, of what an extraordinary dancer he was, and how fast he moved, and how these steps and changes of direction were extraordinary. And it's all there. It's all there on these screens, multiple screens, so you can see it again and again as you walk through the exhibition. So I was on a high when I went see the exhibition, it was just thrilling for me to see Michael dance like that. And to remember to remember how he was when we first worked together. He was a, you know, it's a cliche to say, but it's absolutely true, he was a real inspiration to me. Not for long, but I really treasured the two years that I worked with him. And I've never forgotten what it was like to work together.
FH: Thanks to Richard Alston, to the BBC for the archive footage and to you for listening to this episode of Nothing Concrete. Next time, we’ll be talking to gallerist Sadie Coles.
To plan your visit to Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer, go to barbican.org.uk and from October 2021 it’ll be at the V&A Dundee.
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And if you’d like to hear more of the music connected to these episodes, listen to the Barbican’s Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer playlist on Spotify.
This episode of Nothing Concrete was produced by me, Freya Hellier for Loftus Media, the production coordinator is Cheree Houston.