Like the estranged parents of a mischievous child who ‘just happen’ to meet at an old favourite restaurant, you know when you’ve been stitched up. Those waiting to see Michael Clark’s latest production would be forgiven for thinking they’ve been brought in under false pretences.
Not only was the invitation to this unnamed show somewhat vague; what we find on arrival is two rather different performances – attended by two rather different audiences. This is perhaps inevitable when dealing with someone as diverse in his work as Clark. The choreographer counts The Fall and Young British Artist Sarah Lucas amongst his past collaborators; others may know him better for his Stravinsky Trilogy, completed on this very stage five years ago. Wherever the common ground may lie, it all makes for an unusually acute buzz. As the lights dim, one can smell reconciliation in the air.
The first dance is a classical composition, courtly and precise, placing greatest emphasis on simple, rudimentary steps. These are ballerinas of archetype. Their movements find strength in symmetry and reciprocity, point and counterpoint. As the sequence progresses, however, we may become uncertain of their characters’ confidence. The atmosphere is one of naiveté, of innocence – the sprites seem reserved, wary of each other, chaste.
The sense of propriety is underlined in the stage design. Clean lines abound. The backdrop – a solid block of colour – cycles measuredly through the cold end of the spectrum; hereby space, like the metre of time in Scritti Politti’s soundtrack, is demarcated, flattened, and constrained.
As a result, the movements bare all the hallmarks of repression. Something is concealed from us and denied their characters, for theirs is a passion devoid of lust. This seems inevitable given their equipment. The costumes – sober and baggy – disclose little, and are not consistently distributed according to gender; likewise, the directness of the lighting supresses even the dancers’ angularity and, with it, the most obvious indicators of sexual difference.
But Clark is offering us less a critique of identity than a model of bourgeois sexlessness. The sheer abundance of life – revealed through difference, autonomy, and individuality – is here subservient to cultural mores and the austerity of classical form. Yet as Freud and friends were keen to stress, the repressed will return – and so, whilst the first performer was lowered to the stage from the seeming celestial heavens, those of the second act seek only to wallow in the dirt.
We are now eons from the light of the academy. The only colour lent to the surroundings is that reflected from the dancers’ skin-tight, meat-red body suits. The vacuum slurps-up their sin. The stage swells in the darkness, growing ever deeper as it is populated by figures in baroque formation. Gone is the linearity and tectonic strength of the introduction – lost in a cacophony of radiophonic noise. Before long, any residual high-mindedness will be pursued from the stage by writhing bodies and stool-grinding harlequins.
The change of hue is matched by a change of tone. Pulp’s F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E. begins the thaw. Like many Pulp songs of this period, the lyrics find sensuality in the domestic – its narrator linking the memory of a lover’s curves to the fading image of her bedroom furniture. Finally, the curtain raises to reveal Relaxed Muscle, who perform the remainder of the soundtrack live and summarise our descent into Hell.
This is rare opportunity to see Jarvis Cocker’s side-project in the round, as only a handful of gigs were given in 2003. In the guise of Darren Spooner, Cocker is magnificent. He prowls the stage like a horrorshow – cracking his bullwhip and spewing smut through his gnarled teeth.
A sense of freedom permeates the choreography. Clark’s company make full use of the open stage, making particular use of the diagonals; the troops’ tie is loosened. Jarvis’ moves come straight from the Pulp playbook; there are plenty of little jumps, and his pianists’ fingers habitually creep up to cover his face. But for all the apparent improvisation, it’s clear that a good deal of work has gone
into the maintaining sound geometry. The results are frequently startling.
Dance purists might be forgiven for thinking their space has been hijacked. Jarvis cannot help but draw the eye when swinging his pashmina tail, or wading into the audience to distribute sweets. But herein lays the point. If the first dance presented a vision of sublimated desire, the second is one learning to capitulate. Deny it as we might, this is the life-spring of dance in all its guises; to dance, Clark seems to argue, is to flirt – at times fastidiously, at times outrageously.
Hesitantly, the band is cheered between songs. One can feel uncertainty amongst the crowd as it squares up to etiquette. It’s classic ego-vs.-id. By the end of set, the audience is in-step; many on their feet. The tattered remains of Debrett’s lie forgotten in the aisles.