Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House
January 30, 2018
In the 1980s, Michael Clark had a reputation as the enfant terrible of British dance. Although he trained at the Royal Ballet School, he formed his own company at 22 and raised a finger to the establishment with performances that included, among other provocations, punk music, bare-bottomed dancers and cameo appearances by the likes of Australian performance artist Leigh Bowery.
Clark is now 55 and his latest work to a simple rock ‘n’ roll…song. has an altogether different vibe: cool elegance with a clear – and acknowledged – nod to Merce Cunningham.
The work takes the form of a triptych, which runs a tight 85 minutes including interval. It premiered at the Barbican Centre in 2016 and has since toured. It is now being presented by the Sydney Opera House prior to a season at the Perth Festival.
Sophie Cottrell, Harry Alexander, Rowan Parker, Oxana Panchenko, Kieran Page, Benjamin Warbis and Daniel Corthorn. Photograph © Prudence Upton
Act I, which is subtitled Satie Studs/Ogives Composite, is choreographed to piano music by Erik Satie, including four studies known as the Ogives, which have an austere almost dour quality, matched by the pristine rigour of the choreography with its off-set limbs, parrallel arms, scissored legs, flexed hands, bent elbows and high leg balances used by Clark to create sculptural shapes.
It begins with seven dancers in three rows, backs to the audience, moving in unison. The meticulous nature of the choreography requires absolute precision and is completely exposing for the bare-footed dancers. Initially that precision was missing and the patterning was a little ragged, which undercut the impact of the movement. But as Act I segued into a stunning solo by Daniel Corthorn, featuring some beautiful floor work, and then into different combinations of dancers, the synchronicity sharpened.
Charles Atlas’s lighting design, with its two-tone washes of colour comprising different hues on the floor and back wall, creates a gorgeously lush backdrop against which the eight dancers look sleek in simple black and white unitards (costumes by Stevie Stewart and Clark).
Oxena Panchenko. Photograph © Prudence Upton
The energy level lifts in Act II, which is subtitled Land and performed to the three-part song from Patti Smith’s 1976 album Horses. During the opening Satie section, the dancers hardly touched at all, so in the second part you are keenly aware of the more human connection in duets and trios, with the dancers now in flared black pants. As a backdrop, Clark uses a mesmerising black and white video installation by Atlas called Painting by Numbers, first seen in London in 2010, with cascading patterns, swirls and spirals of numerals.
The final section, subtitled my mother, my dog and CLOWNS! (a lyric from Bowie’s Life on Mars?) uses music by David Bowie. It begins with the elegaic Blackstar from his final album released just two days before he died, and ends with the more exuberant Aladdin Sane. The dancers wear silvery jumpsuits initially, then red and gold ones which glow warmly under red lighting and accentuate their musculature. The choreography includes looser swivelled hips and unexpected, off-centre turns as the mood changes, with some moments verging on acrobatic, while Oxana Panchenko is a standout in a fierce solo.
Despite this gradual loosening of the body, Clark uses a similar vocabulary across the three pieces. Elegant and chic, to a simple rock ‘n’ roll…song. looks stunning visually but doesn’t have a great deal of heart, while Act III ends somewhat abruptly. But there is much to enjoy and the Sydney opening night audience gave it a rousing reception.