The story of O

For his next act, Michael Clark takes on Stravinsky.

FLOOR ACTION Dancer Melissa Hetherington performs Mmm….

FLOOR ACTION Dancer Melissa Hetherington performs Mmm…. Photograph: Hugo Glendinning

Michael Clark’s three dances set to music by Stravinsky could be the punch line of a sex joke: O, Mmm… and I Do. “I like titles that can embrace different things at once, rather than dictating how a piece is perceived,” the choreographer explains.

Born in Scotland and based in London, Clark, 46, was synonymous with an aggressive, sexual strain of contemporary dance in the ’80s and early ’90s, but for nearly 20 years he has been something of an enigma in New York. There was a brief but satisfying glimpse of his refinement in Satie Stud, a solo he choreographed for William Trevitt and presented in Christopher Wheeldon’s Morphoses season last fall. As part of this spring’s Great Performers “New Visions” series, he appears with his own company in Stravinsky Project, featuring two programs: the three aforementioned works and OO, a beauty of a dance set to rock music (including Iggy Pop and Wire).

Clark’s Stravinsky Project, created in a collaboration with the Barbican Centre, where he is an artistic associate, includes O, set to Apollo; Mmm…, to Rite of Spring; and I Do, to Les Noces. In the world of dance, such seminal music is supremely loaded; the names Balanchine, Nijinsky and Nijinska flash automatically through the mind. But there’s something about the purity of Clark’s choreographic voice, his willingness to consecrate the beauty of line above all else, that gives his interpretations a richly satisfying luster.

These days, he finds himself at a point where less is more: “I think it’s to get to a deeper place, really,” Clark says. “That’s my goal at this point: In order to achieve my full potential as an artist, I have to go deeper. The things that I find inspiring are by people who have worked and worked and found a way of saying what they have to say in as few words as possible. It’s to do with one’s age, as well. When you’re younger, you’re making tons of stuff and you analyze it later on, but at this point, I’ve got limited energy and time and I want to use it wisely.”

For Clark, who trained at the Royal Ballet School but turned down a position with the company to join Ballet Rambert, drugs became a problem that nearly destroyed him. O and Mmm… were created before he relocated to his mother’s home in Scotland in 1994 to rid himself of addiction. He has reworked both dances since, but I Do is entirely new.

“There were people in Rite of Spring—my mother was in it, Leigh Bowery was in it,” he says. “And they’re not at this point in time.” (Bowery, the outré performance artist and designer who was a frequent collaborator of Clark’s, died in 1994.) “More recently, I’ve been in my mother’s role,” he continues. “But part of the reason that I wanted to go back to Mmm… was because I felt it was closest to being complete and I was really interested in looking at that again. For Apollo, there was more work to do.”

In the case of I Do (Les Noces is based on a wedding ritual), Clark is more interested in a marriage between tradition and innovation than in a literal marriage. “It’s very lean,” he explains. “I’m very familiar with the Nijinska version of Les Noces, because as a student at the Royal Ballet School, it’s one of your parents in a way. I kind of grew up with it. But I think the next thing I do won’t have anything to do with Stravinsky. I’m still looking for the Stravinsky of our times. It’s tough. Like most people, I find a lot of serious new music quite challenging.” He laughs. “I admire people who stick with it. I’m also drawn to very simple music.”

Underneath the rock music and flamboyant costumes that defined his early days, Clark found that the rigor of dance remained the most basic part of his existence. Even when he abandoned his profession and moved back home, he knew that dance “was always there and that I would return to it,” he says. “Probably it’s the thing that made me able to return to living. Even if it was just gradually doing floor barre in Scotland.”

Clark says that he needed to go inward. “I felt like I was on show all the time or something, and I kind of had to find somewhere quiet to reflect on what I’d done. I mean going back to Scotland where my mom lives and the idea that you’d be paid to dance is just completely alien to people there. It was good to remember the privileged position I was in. I’m very lucky in having something that I pretty much have devoted my life to and that won’t go away. It’s a very stabilizing thing.”

Michael Clark Company is at the Rose Theater Wed 4-Jun 7.