Most divisive of all the art forms, dance is a tough enough sell in a theatre. But in an art gallery? Lunacy. Actually though, the Barbican’s show devoted to the dancer and choreographer Michael Clark is really great: funny, smart, a bit wonky in places. For years, every mention of Clark seemed contractually obliged to call him an ‘enfant terrible’ or an ‘iconoclast’. Or both. And you can see why, but also see that to reduce him to just that is to massively miss the point of Clark’s wild reinvention of classical ballet.
So, yeah, there’s plenty of footage of Clark’s company in their arse-baring tights, there’s a piece in which one dancer eats a sausage and another featuring a naked lass with a chainsaw. If – like me – your route into Clark’s work was The Fall, there’s a Mark E Smith bonanz-uh here. Clips from ‘Lay of the Land’, the giant burger, fries and tins of beans from ‘I Am Curious, Orange’, and a strange round-table featuring Clark, Smith and Brix Smith, all chain-smoking and talking parodic high-cultural crap. It’s all very entertaining.
Other collaborators get a look in too. There’s a bitchy backstage film featuring Leigh Bowery, and some stage props by Sarah Lucas, including a wonderful cockerel made of fags. All of this would be fun but kind of pointless were it not for the unifying brilliance of Clark’s dancing. As a former member of both the Royal Ballet and Ballet Rambert, Clark has technical proficiency to spare. It’s his combination of classical rigour and punky splashy messy visuals that makes his choreography so compelling. Despite the purist-baiting antics and costumes, Clark’s work never looks silly or wilful. It reminds you of just how odd ballet is by offering it in a radically reimagined context. It introduces things that never impinge on that landscape, like football, and forces you to confront the physical extreme that is classical dance and understand it anew. Clark’s sui generis world becomes increasingly magical and disturbing the more you are exposed to it, and this show is a tremendous introduction to it.
‘Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer’, Barbican Art Gallery. Until Jan 3 2021. £15-£17, concs £11-£17. Book your slot here.