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.
In this mini-series of three episodes, we’re looking at the work of Michael Clark, the Scottish dancer and choreographer who has both challenged and delighted the establishment.
His prodigious classical technique fused with a determination to go his own way - often taking like-minded artists, musicians and designers with him, has created a dance language that is all his own. As he says for himself:
Michael Clark: The idea of making dance for dancers or for the dance public is ridiculous I think
FH: Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer is the first major exhibition to explore his work and collaborations and it’s on at the Barbican 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.
Today we’re exploring Michael’s affinity with the world of contemporary art.
Sadie Coles: My name is Sadie Coles and I have a contemporary art gallery in London, which opened in the 90s. I'm a friend of Michael Clark's, and was on the board of his dance company for many years.
Initially, I was a fan of Michael's output, which I first saw, I think at Riverside Studios in the 80s, where he was the choreographer in residence and would put on new productions. But I was also aware of him and his collaborators from the London nightclub world really, in the 80s.
When I started working for Anthony D’Offay, in 1990, Michael had also just done a window shop window performance called Heterosexual [Ed’s note: Heterospective]. So I also knew him through the context of art and art galleries.
The exhibition at the Barbican is a very special take on Michael, because it presents both his work, but also his multifarious collaborations with other artists, from musicians to fine artists, to filmmakers, to fashion designers. And it really, really captures the energy of his creative spirit and the group of collaborators that he worked with, right from the very early days. And there's this incredible sense of this group of remarkable people that Michel put together, who helped him really make his total vision.
MC: When I reached 15 which is a difficult age for everybody, there were all these exciting things going on in music and fashion or whatever, with the whole punk thing and that really attracted me much more than anything that was happening in dance And since then I really have felt the driving force for me has been what’s going in the world rather than what’s going on in the dance world. And the idea of making dance for dancers or for the dance public is ridiculous I think.
SC: There is something about Michael, that he does think like an artist, and I've always categorized him not as a dancer, but as an artist for that reason. I mean, he thinks completely outside the box, his creative output is often quite transgressive, making new connections between music and movement, and fashion and theatre and performance, that has an originality, that is something that I would be looking for in the artists I show in my gallery.
From the very start, he also transgressed the limitations of the sort of contemporary dance scene in that he was making performances with music, and costumes that we're not in it, you know, not expected in that in that category. And that just felt like, like a sort of revolution in the same way that the YBAs felt like a revolution in terms of Fine Arts, it was just, you know, a rebellious new movement. And Michael's work feels like that within the contemporary dance canon.
I think that Sarah Lucas recognized a kindred spirit the moment she met Michael, they do share some content, in terms of both being interested in in sex and gender and using it both as a tool to provoke response, and also to question conventions of dealing with sex and gender in their work so that they definitely have a kind of common ground. They also both of them are born rebels. And there's a sort of energy around that. So you know, seeing Michael and Sarah hunkered down together smoking a cigarette working on either a production idea for Michael or sticking cigarettes on a Sarah Lucas sculpture in her front room.
But at the same time sharing a love of quite out there music, there would be a soundtrack to any activity that they were doing, which would be, I don't know, Led Zeppelin or David Bowie, or Can. There's so many shared interests between the two of them that I think that it was inevitable that they would start to work together.
FH: The subversive nature of Sarah Lucas’ work certainly inspired Michael and they began to collaborate. Their first show was called Before and After: The Fall.
SC: Yes, I mean, Sarah had been making these cast arms from sitters that she knew, and she casts Michael’s arm. And then she attached these arms to springs on a wooden panel and they were they were sort of mounted on the wall. And as you as you walk past one of these sculptures, you would just tap it and the arm would just wank on its spring. And Michael loved these works and the naughtiness of them I suppose. And he asked her to collaborate on his Before and After: The Fall, I think it was. But anyway, so Sarah made a giant version of the wanking cast arm, which had sort of elaborate motor to make it move and she and Michael came up with the idea of having a dancer standing in the fist of the hand with the hand going up and down like a metronome, which is, of course, something that is used to mark time in dance and music.
And it was very funny this piece. It was set to the music of Nina Simone. And some of the dancers were in men's underwear, the cut the costumes were based on Y fronts and wife-beater vests, which were also materials that Sarah had draped around some figurative sculpture around chairs to suggest a figure on a chair. So there was a very nice use of that material in both his performance and Sarah’s work.
I mean, in a way, you know, a lot of Sarah's work is upending conventions around gender so, you know, her interpretation or upending of the male gaze, for instance, is very consistent. And I would say that, that gender bending exists quite a lot, exists quite a lot in Michael's work. So the use of this of these sort of blokey underwear outfits for the dancers was very, you know… share a sort of shared visual trigger for both of them.
Michael's early work took an enormous amount from club culture in London at that time, which was incredibly creative, and everybody dressed up it was it there was, you know, lots of artists involved, you know, Cerith Wyn Evans, Charles Atlas, the Neo naturists, Trojan, Leigh Bowery, all of these people were all in that nightclub scene. And Michael definitely was influenced or took a lot from the energy of that scene, including working with many of the people that he went night clubbing with on a regular basis, like BodyMap, Stevie Stewart and David Holah or, or Jamie Reid the graphic designer, or some of the musicians that he worked with.
So in a way, I don't really see it as punk I see it more as, as being club influenced.
I think Michael's work is actually hugely varied. You know, there are there have been productions where he's used classical music and where the movements have been to a certain extent much more traditional, but he has also and possibly this is him getting categorized, you know, is more known for this kind of transgressive performances that use much more contemporary music or collaborate with contemporary culture in an obvious way. But for me, one of the things about him is that he's just very, very clever. And he has a very advanced aesthetic sense for all aspects of his productions, from the costumes to the movement to the music, he chooses to the kind of staging that he wants to use, to seeking out alternative venues to put his works on.
MC: Well when you know when I was dealing with a certain kind of audience, which I think I had, when I was at Riverside for example, it was too tempting not to go out of my way not to do things that was going to irritate them. It was a certain very safe, left wing type of audience, sort of wholemeal. I couldn’t resist it. But now we do so much touring and we go to places where I really don’t know about the culture or whatever, I think work has broadened because of that. It’s very tempting as well because suddenly all these things coming through, it just makes you want to do things more extremely. I think that’s bad, you should have those things determining the direction that you go in, but unfortunately, it’s the way of the world just now.
SC: I mean, I think he just, he really pushes every aspect, and everything is incredibly considered. So I think it's a very, very sophisticated conceptual body of work. And I think the reason that fine artists respond to Michael is because they can see that they see that he is someone who is pushing boundaries, rethinking and coming up with the most extraordinary and original works of art.
You can dress things up with crazy costumes, wacky music, crazy staging, fantastic venues, but none of it will work unless the actual movement is good. And at the end of the day, I always felt like Michael’s extraordinary and very recognizable sequences of gesture that he gives his dancers, but also to watch him perform himself is just absolutely exquisite.
But it's to a very, very high standard and, and, you know, that's what I'm saying is sometimes I think he gets categorized as the punky dancer but actually, if you look at what he's doing, the precision and the quality of the movement is really what elevates all other aspects of the productions.
FH: Thanks to Sadie Coles, the BBC for the archive footage and to you for listening to this episode of Nothing Concrete. Next time, we’ll be talking to designer and co-founder of Bodymap, Stevie Stewart.
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