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.
Choreographer Michael Clark has been an arresting - and often shocking - presence on the dance scene ever since he left the family farm in Aberdeen for the Royal Ballet School as a young teen in the 70s
He’s often used his renowned classical technique to subvert the tropes and traditions of classical ballet, and what he and his dancers have worn on stage has sometimes attracted almost as much attention as his dancing. From the traditional tutu teamed with punk, to Leigh Bowery designed floral headmasks, dildos to dancing cans of baked beans, Michael Clark’s personality jumps out of his stagewear.
Michael Clark: Quite often people think things are there to shock, but it’s simply something I think looks good. For example the bare bums, I thought were a lovely fashion detail.
FH: Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer is the first major exhibition to explore his work and collaborations and it’s on at the Barbican until the 3rd of January.
I’m producer, Freya Hellier and I’ve been talking to some of the key figures in Michael Clark’s creative world. I spoke to a groundbreaking designer who has been working with Michael since the early days.
Stevie Stewart: I saw a post on Instagram of Michael in the dinosaur costume, getting out of the egg. The way he gets out of that egg, that arched foot was just to die for. It was something that could be quite hammy, because he had like the broken eggshell as if you'd knocked the top off with a spoon on his head! But he managed to make it so beautiful.
It’s easy to think of Michael Clark’s early work as having a kind of circus like, spectacular quality and the playful, sexy and boundary pushing costumes were a large part of that. And that vision was shared by designer, Stevie Stewart.
Back in the day in the 80s, I had fashion company with David Holah. And together we were BodyMap. And as BodyMap, we costumed Michael's company for quite a few years. And I remember meeting Michael when he came to some council flats where David and a group of other creative people lived. I didn't live there but I spent a lot of time there because David and I just graduated from Middlesex Polytechnic. We first saw him then he was an exquisite, amazing person, very stylish, and very well mannered. Very charismatic, quite shy, but very charismatic.
David and I had seen Dutiful Ducks which was a piece that Michael was in, and we were blown away by it and very inspired. And so after that, when we saw him, we'd start a conversation. The impact of Dutiful Ducks was actually Michael’s dancing. He had such an amazing technique. That was something that we'd hadn't ever seen before. We hadn't been used to seeing dance. And so I mean, it just blew us away. Then he would take us, he would encourage us to go and see classical ballet productions, we'd go with him to see them. And David and I actually started going to ballet class, we were so inspired. David and I had fashion company called BodyMap in the 80s and we wanted to create a new way of dressing. In the 80s was quite a grey period before that. It was Thatcherite to the social climate was quite grey and gloomy. Lots of other designers were shoulder pads, all that sort of thing, we wanted to go completely away from that. So we created a way of dressing using stretch fabrics. And in those stretch fabrics, which at that time had only been used for sweatshirts and jogging trousers, basically, not even athleisure as it is now. And so we took these fabrics and recreated them by putting very bold graphic prints on them, cutting them in ways that were designer shapes but using this stretch fabric, and also cutting in the way that was a new way of cutting. It wasn't just a basic block, we would create new shapes that would be often be inspired by our collections. For example, we'd have lots of references and inspirations that the two of us would put our heads together and work on and we'd come up with a whole concept for our collection. The one that in 1984, our first solo catwalk show was called Cat in the Hat Takes a Rumble with the Techno Fish. And that had lots of techno graphic black and white zigzag cross designs. It was that collection that Michael saw and was inspired with.
The first costumes that we did for Michael was for his production, You Me, I Did, and that was costumes that were inspired by our BodyMap fashion collection using black and white graphic mesh prints, techno prints and then we would have holes cut out. Ribbed holes and ribbed slashes and then elongated arms which had holes cut in for them to have the wrists for the hands to come out of and actually Michael used that in the choreography. So that was quite exciting.
After that, I think Michael then had got more work and more productions of his own. And in his own work, he would have characters that he wanted to work with. So he would be more, he would give us more of a brief a detailed brief, with H Cacaphony H, which was had the music of Hair, for example, in it, Michael would ask us to, for example, make a leather jacket using hair extensions as the fringe. And then we'd, we'd take that as an inspiration. And then we would make jock straps with long hair coming out of the back, or long tailcoats with graphic prints with hairy underarms, things like that. So that's when we began to sort of feed off each other, I would say. In the 80s, it was very much a play hard, work hard ethic. And there was groups of people that we were involved in, whether it was musicians, or dance or artists, filmmakers, video recorders, DJs - everyone had such passion and drive at that time, and wanting to rebel and make a difference. In a way punk did help because it was anarchy, but anarchy to make something new to make something different. And we all had a passion and drive for it, we’d want to inspire each other. So whatever field you're in, there is a circle of very creative people that we're all trying to do their own thing and make a difference. And a lot of that was also transferred to the club culture. People would spend hours getting ready to go dress up to go to Taboo, for example.
Going to clubs was actually part of the whole scene, we would meet our friends there, there was no sort of social media then so that was where you would meet up with your friends and you'd know that they everyone would be there. It's a very social event. And everyone would get dressed up as I say, so sometimes we would be wearing BodyMap outfits, and Michael would be wearing BodyMap. And it was as sort of crossover of work and play. When David and I had our first solo catwalk show, during London Fashion Week, we wanted to present our show in a completely unique way. Plus, we were a small company, completely self-financed, so we didn't have loads of money. And we would get friends and dancers and models or up and coming models or not even models. My mum would model, David's little niece, who was probably three or four at the time, she would model and we would get other people that weren't models, but just all shapes and sizes, all ages. We wanted to show the diversity on the catwalk back in the day. In 1986, Michael actually choreographed one of our shows, and was also in it. It was an amazing show. Had lasers, had dancers, Boy George was in it. Lots of all the BodyMap family, we would call them, lots of the models that had started when we started and had then become quite well known models. They were all in it in the show.
One of our favourite costumes as body map for David and I loved doing was dinosaur costume for Michael. And it had a suit jacket with the dinosaur foam tail in which was actually cut into the jacket. And then the legs were concertina, origami square, beige and red square concertina trousers, which we loved that costume. And there was another set of costumes for that production, Because We Must, which also Charlie Atlas made a film of, and they were white costumes. We called them kinetic costumes. We wanted to see them move and they, the boys had kinetic, almost like blades on their shirts which were made in transparent white organza, and the girls had more of a fluid type. And then the girls had, out of their leggings had fluid chiffon frills. And they all came, the dancers in those costumes, in the show, came up from beneath the stage on a riser. And although I've done loads of costumes before, and David had as well, when they came up we were actually really excited. And I actually had tingles down my spine.
As David and I would get lots of inspirations and call our shows a description of what inspired us, Michael also had a very layered approach to his inspirations, and what inspired him and what he was trying to present with dance as an art form. And there's certain parallels, I think that we both BodyMap and Michael, where time is seen as shocking, yet, there was a lot more to it than that. And both BodyMap and Michael Clark has a lot of lot to say, and a lot of different things that they wanted to show. So it wasn't all shock value. There's technical, lots of different technical approaches. Michael's, I mean, his complexity and technique of his actual choreography is amazing. And David and I had a lot of technical work at creating and recreating different fabrics, inventing fabrics with the company in Sweden, working with graphic designers on and a textile designer, Hilda Smith on our prints. And so there was a world of BodyMap and there was a world for Michael Clark.
In recent years, I've worked with Michael as Stevie Stewart, costume designer. And I would say that it's, he now wants in his or in his work both in his choreography and in his costumes, he wanted a purer art form. And so there weren't so many gimmicky type of costumes, it was more to see the graphic lines of the dance. And the choreography was so complex and so technical, and so difficult that I'm thinking of, for example of the Satie production, where the dancers had to make extraordinary shapes in very difficult positions. And so in that respect, their costumes became very simple, but very graphic unit odds. And so we've been working on a body conscious, more unitard type approach for recent years.
FH: Michael Clark may have moved towards a purer form of expression, but he still works collaboratively. Here he is explaining why that aspect of his work remains:
MC: The reason is simply that I see each member as a very strong individual, with something strong to contribute to what I’m doing. It’s very tempting to do everything myself, more and more, as things become clearer, as to what I want exactly, for example the set for the new show was designed by me. And sometimes I have to do a set of course with myself, simply because I know exactly what they have to be and so it’s the easiest way of doing it. But although I’ve worked with the same people for quite a while, we’re not a group of people who pat each other on the back and say how wonderful they are. There’s a lot of conflict within the group because we do have a lot of strong ideas of what direction we want to go in individually. And that’s why I think it works. And there may be a lot of friction at times but it’s certainly worth it in the end. We have a similar way of looking at things but there’s so many different approaches within that.
SS: Working with Michael sometimes can be quite challenging. It's always exciting. Sometimes he's… he’s a perfectionist and so sometimes things get left right to the last minute, which is quite demanding, but also very exciting. And also when you see it on stage, you're just like, oh, phew.
FH: Thanks to Stevie Stewart, to the BBC for the archive footage and to you for listening to this episode of Nothing Concrete.
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