Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

all three at once

Choreography by Michael Clark
Michael Clark Company
Barbican Theatre

Melissa Hetherington, Daniel Squire and Benjamin Warbis in Michael Clark's all three at once Credit: Tony Nandi
Harry Alexander and Oxana Panchenko in in Michael Clark's all three at once Credit: Tony Nandi
Melissa Hetherington and Benjamin Warbis in Michael Clark's all three at once Credit: Hugo Glendinning
Michael Clark Company Credit: Hugo Glendinning

Michael Clark’s title for this extension of last year’s ‘work-in-progress’ double bill into a triple is a quote taken from the Daily Telegraph: "by turns ravishing, outrageous, borderline certifiable, and sometimes all three at once" (my italics). Who says no one pays any attention to critics? But I’d say it’s more sophisticated than that.

Is Michael Clark the Dadaist de nos jours? The Man Ray of the ballet world, Fernand Léger and Duchamp? Because it’s not only the 1980s that were his fun time, but, for sure, the 1920s must have had some influence on his stage picture, on his mischievous punning.

Fernand Léger’s 1924 Ballet Mécanique and Man Ray’s 1926 Emak-Bakia short films have been shown at Tate Modern, and Clark’s company has performed in its Turbine Hall.

New Work 2012 was a live music / dance gig; this year all three at once is a Gesamtkunstwerk, a complete art work, for which Charles Atlas’s lighting design and the costumes by Stevie Stewart, Michael Clark and Richard Torry must take much of the credit.

No live performance from Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker as Relaxed Muscle this time, but taped recordings and a video, directed by Michael Clark and Charles Atlas, looming large over the dancers—Cocker in fake beard behind bars like a lion in a zoo, a lithe and graceful mover.

Scritti Politti and Sex Pistols recordings divide the evening into a three-act show. Clark does love his club music, its lighting, its liberated ethos, but that’s not all that’s in his DNA.

Scottish highland dance (Clark’s high-stepping thoroughbred dancers could be prancing in delicate sword dance), Royal Ballet School training, Richard Alston and Merce Cunningham are embedded deep in his muscle memory.

The port de bras is classical ballet, the legs elementary ballet class exercises, the elegance is Alston, the semaphore arms Cunningham, the subversion his own: classical ballet and funky club beats that bring the hips into play.

And the audience loves it. Clark is irresistible. An impish presence whether on or off stage, he makes a brief Hitchcock-like appearance, the director gesticulating to his dancers—handy shorthand, two fingers, fists clenched on arms giving a well-known salute—to which they reply in kind.

Beautiful feet first, a dark angel (Julie Cunningham) in black gymslip descends slowly to Scritti Politti’s "The Boom Boom Bap"—"the beat of my life"—into the arms of Daniel Squire—in black gymslip. "Keep your love away from me".

Another tongue-in-cheek duet—Harry Alexander head and shoulders above Oxana Panchenko—but there’s nothing tongue-in-cheek about the dancing. The feet are beautifully arched, Clark’s classical vocabulary intact in the nowhere-to-hide slow display.

But his insurrection is everywhere, too, in his patterns on the floor, in the upside-down duet, the salutes to the sun, the base slitherings, the feel for the heavy beat that hits you in the solar plexus and shatters the eardrums.

One minute boneless creatures, the next his dancers are stiff androids in optical illusion unitards. Starship Enterprise, Blade Runner, Star Wars—Harry Alexander on pointes is a fine superhuman specimen, a Gulliver amongst the Lilliputians.

The last chapter is self-interrogation. Words spill on the screen in black and white font, a line becomes a wedge, a shard. 1984? Marinetti’s futurism? Shadows grow.

But the centre holds. In liquid flame costumes, this cohort is its molten heart: Melissa Hetherington, Oxana Panchenko, Julie Cunningham, Benjamin Warbis, Harry Alexander, and Daniel Squire. The girls are pinpoint precise, legs mathematical compasses.

Quick change again. Clark is nothing if not mercurial. But now they are sex on legs, crotches to the fore, superior club dancers, embellishment to Jarvis Cocker’s larger than life upstaging performance. He is the one who cracks the whip, both lion tamer and cool cat.

Join two canny performers, cross an ex-fine art student with a gifted ex-ballet dancer who has been through the fire and what do you get? Coordinated stage magic.

Reviewer: Vera Liber