When Michael Clark first brought his contemporary dance company to Australia in the late ’80s, the reaction was less than welcoming.
“I remember people saying, ‘We don’t need another choreographer, we already have one.’ I think they meant Graeme Murphy. That was from the critics,” he recalls.
In hindsight Clark concedes his work may not have been to everyone’s taste. For example, his piece No Fire Escape in Hell was a collaboration with outlandish Australian performance artist Leigh Bowery – who paraded around the stage in 10-inch heels wielding a chainsaw.
“We were in Australia for six to eight weeks, which was a luxury. I really enjoyed it but I have loads of relatives in Australia and only two of them came to see my work. Sometimes it takes a while to appreciate things maybe,” says the Scottish-born London-based choreographer, chuckling.
It says a lot about Australia’s maturing cultural palate – and the mellowing of this oft-cited former bad boy of dance – that the Michael Clark Company is now being brought back here specifically because the production has such broad appeal.
Titled to a simple, rock ‘n’ roll … song, the triple bill blends the music of David Bowie, Patti Smith’s punk-rock poem-song Land and pioneering French composer Erik Satie with design by acclaimed video artist Charlie Atlas; and eclectic costumes by former Bodymap co-designer Stevie Stewart and Clark himself. Clark is the brains behind the movement.
Of course Bowie’s and Smith’s are household names, but exactly who is Michael Clark CBE (Buckingham Palace bestowed the award to the bemused choreographer in 2014 for “services to dance”)?
Born on a farm near Aberdeen Clark learnt traditional Scottish dance from age four, and was accepted into the prestigious Royal Ballet School in London at 13. He had a prodigious talent and a healthy disrespect for authority – his exceptional ability saved him from near-certain expulsion when he was caught sniffing glue at the school.
Still, Clark never graduated from the Royal Ballet School, he jumped ship for the contemporary Ballet Rambert after a visit from one of its teachers.. He became heavily involved in punk, wearing ballet flats by day and thrashing to Sex Pistols at night. By 1984 he’d founded his own eponymous company, now a resident at London’s Barbican Centre.
Clark’s early works were notorious for courting controversy, featuring dildos and bare bums, with regular appearances from his mates; including post-punk band the Fall, and his beloved late mother Bessie, who appeared bare-breasted on stage simulating giving birth to him in O. Life has opened doors and thrown Clark some curve balls – depression, heroin and the suicide of his father when he was 18, among them.
He’s moved in high-profile circles and obligingly relates that Rudolf Nureyev anecdote from the 1990s when he was unceremoniously ejected from the Soviet ballet star’s soiree. Clark had been mingling with Jackie Onassis and Margot Fonteyn – before he was caught kissing a chef’s boyfriend. “I was on the phone to a friend of my mother’s saying, ‘You’ll never guess who I’m with, I’m with Jackie Onassis.’ I was trying on her fur coat, it was one of those insane moments where you thought, ‘Am I dreaming?’”
Despite the on-stage antics, or what Clark describes today as “the extraneous things that were thought of as shocking or provocative”, his choreography rarely failed to draw accolades for its purity, grace and originality, and he was commissioned by Paris Opera, Scottish Ballet and the Royal Ballet among others.
Today, people say he’s mellowed, lost the hunger for shock value and with it the once ever-present tags of “enfant terrible” and “wild child of dance”. But if anything his works are more in demand, not less.
Clark met Bowie after he had requested and been granted rights to the singer-songwriter’s music in 2009.
“David came and saw what I was doing in New York a couple of years before he died. The first thing he said to me was, ‘Michael, this rock ‘n’ roll, make-up, costumes and dance will never catch on.’ He was very modest, it was very endearing. I said, ‘Thank you so much for allowing me to use your music, it’s such a wonderful body of work’ and he said, ‘Shame about the body.’”
The Olivier Award-nominated to a simple, rock ‘n’ roll … song was choreographed after the singer’s death in early 2016 and features Blackstar and Aladdin Sane. Audiences still find it an emotional show. “It’s an amazing piece of music, I find it very moving to watch,” Clark says.
He may be into his fourth decade of choreographing but there’s not a day that Clark doesn’t appreciate life. “I’ve been around for quite a long time. Somebody said to me the other day, ‘I thought you’d died.’ But you don’t stop being an artist. It’s my life. When I’d go back to see my mum people would say, ‘You get paid to dance?’ And that reminds me how lucky I am to be able to do what I love.”
to a simple, rock ‘n’ roll … song is at the Sydney Opera House until February 4. For more information, see here.