If you were to dream up a rockstar choreographer, your mental picture would probably look a lot like Michael Clark. The Scottish-born dance provocateur frequently collaborated with Australian nightlife legend Leigh Bowery, championed an “anti-ballet punk” style and has had brushes with drug and alcohol addiction.
His latest, wildly popular work (with two sold-out seasons in the UK and about to land at Perth Festival), to a simple, rock ‘n’ roll... song., combines a raucous light installation with the work of composer Erik Satie, but also Patti Smith and David Bowie. It’s a queering of dance history and a celebration of subverted dance narratives. It’s also a straight-up party onstage.
The work opens with Satie Studs/Ogives Composite, which is plays homage to Clark’s mentors and influences: the music of Satie (a rockstar of the late 1800s) and the work Frederick Ashton, Merce Cunningham, John Cage and Yvonne Rainer have made from his music in the dance space, as choreographers and composers. Clark’s dancers are reasonably austere, angular and synchronised – bodies pushing past fluidity to find a new kind of grace, a new way to move – the birth of modern dance lovingly remembered. Lit by brilliant washes of bright colour (Charles Atlas), it’s like a signal flashing to its audience: we’re going somewhere special.
And then it all explodes. Land, featuring the music of Patti Smith and gestural, unclenched, lost-in-the-music movement, is backdropped by a multichannel video installation by Atlas and also unfurls in sexuality, desire, and a recognisable thrill of subversion. Clark has used dildos, outrageous costumes and simulated sex acts to get that buzz going in the past but here it’s simply bodies who are proud to be bodies; there’s a queer spirituality to it that celebrates the freedom of rock ‘n’ roll, nightlife, parties and music – the spaces where your full self can be revealed.
The final sequence belongs to David Bowie’s music, which not only expands upon the themes of Land but opens itself up further to the joy of difference, the joy of living despite the heartbreak of it. It’s full of abandon and a tribute to one of Clark’s most significant muses. The dancers, on a journey from ‘Blackstar’ to ‘Aladdin Sane,’ move from reverence to irreverence with a sly acrobatic solo by Oxana Panchenko. Finally the dancers’ bodies are wholly loose; finally they are free.
To a simple, rock ‘n’ roll... song. could be easily read an analogy for the queer journey from hesitation to self-love, or more broadly, as the saying goes in every writing class, learning the rules of a form before you can break them. This is rule-breaking dance poetry. The company dancers evolve through the triptych from restraint to bodily exploration, from closed to open, from black and white costumes to warm red and gold. It’s a declaration of love. It’s a joy.