Dance master salutes rock heroes

Simon ParkinMichael Clark is the bad boy of British dance turned world class choreographer. As he brings his latest production, inspired his 1970s idols David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, to the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, SIMON PARKIN spoke to him.Simon Parkin

Michael Clark is the former bad boy of British dance turned world class choreographer. As he prepares to bring his latest production, inspired his 1970s idols David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, to the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, SIMON PARKIN spoke to him.

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Michael Clark is frequently described as the bad boy of British dance. His cutting-edge, visually striking works have frequently shocked, but also delighted audiences and have earned him a worldwide reputation.

Three years ago he brought I Do, his ambitious staging of Stravinsky's Le Noces to the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. That was one, along with O (based on Apollo) and Mmm.. (his take on The Rite of Spring), of three Stravinsky ballets he choreographed between 2005-2007,

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It proved a major hit and this year he is back with a very different work. Come, Been and Gone, which will be staged at Norwich Theatre Royal on May 10 and 11, uses music by his 1970s idols David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Rou Reed - who he describes as 'the holy trinity of rock'.

'It's certainly different from Stravinsky in that it primarily to the music of Bowie,' he says. 'That is something I've been wanting to do for quite some time, partly because I'd wanted to use the video to Heroes.

'A piece sort of grew out of that. Also, after three years of doing Stravinsky, I'd sort of wanted do a favour to many of the people who came to that but weren't necessarily fans of Stravinsky, so it's sort of a reward. It's treat for myself too, to be honest.'

The 47-year-old choreographer admits that period of music had a huge formative effect on him when he was growing up in late-1970s Aberdeen.

'It's something I first stumbled on when I was, I suppose about 12, when I first saw Bowie on Top of the Pops,' he recalls. 'It opened my eyes to a different way of doing things. I was already dancing by then, in a very conventional way, and I saw that there was another way of dong things.

'I think in a way I thought that music was as challenging I had did Stravinsky many years later. I didn't get it at first at all. I remember listening to Diamond Dogs many times before I understood it.

'But that first Top of the Pops and he put his arm around Mick Ronson - that was quite shocking to me. It was one of those moments, you know. I thought perhaps I'm not the only person out there. Physical contact between men was usually violence where I come from. It was something of an eye-opener.'

Michael began traditional Scottish dancing at the age of just four. In 1975 he left home to study at the Royal Ballet School in London, and on his final day at the school he was presented with the Ursula Moreton Choreographic Award.

In 1979 he joined Ballet Rambert, working primarily with Richard Alston, who created roles for him in Bell High, Landscape, Rainbow Ripples.

His first forays into choreograph came in the early 1980s and he formed his own dance company in 1984 to some acclaim with works like Do You Me? I Did and New Puritans. However in the early 1990s his career was in crisis. Multiple injuries and his break-up with his boyfriend, US choreographer Stephen Petronio left him struggling with depression and heroin addiction.

Things came to a head in 1994 when he fled to the small Scottish town of Cairnbulg to live with his mother and effectively disappeared from the dance scene for four years.

After a battle to come of drugs, he eventually re-emerged. The Michael Clark Company has since produced some of the UK's most exciting and cutting-edge choreography.

After Stravinsky, the impish dancer has been relishing choreographing pop music. 'It gives you a lot more freedom in a way,' he enthuses. 'You've also got the words to work with or against. We are currently working on Sweet Thing which is very descriptive, so you kind of want to go with it or sometimes against it. It is not so complicated, it sets a sound and rhythm, so it's more straightforward.'

He hopes the uses of popular music will encourage more people to see it. 'This is most accessible thing that I'll ever make. Having said that I love the music so I don't want to just do anything to it. One could rely on the fact people know the songs, and that could make my job easier, but I want to do it justice.'

One tricky aspect has been how best to use the video of Bowie's Heroes. 'I wanted him to have a physical presence in the work,' he says. 'I knew it would be a challenge because if you amplify someone through projection and to have live dance with that, it is quite a challenge not to be eclipsed by the projection. The goal was to dance with him, rather than compete. That's the challenge I took on and I'm not sure whether I've achieved it.'

As far as he knows none of the musicians as so far seen the production, and he's not sure he wants them to. 'As far as I know, they haven't seen it,' he says. 'Iggy is in London soon, so he may do. But I'm quite happy that they haven't in way. I've never gone out of my way to actually meet them. In the past I have made a point of working with people I admire a great deal. But part of me likes that distance, it maybe gives you an objectivity about it.'

He is looking forward to returning to the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, and will probably dance himself - 'I'll definitely do something'.

Balancing dancing and choreography isn't always a easy task. But which does he find most fulfilling? 'They are very different,' he ponders, 'but with choreographing, the fact that people take a lot of pleasure from it gives me a lot of pleasure.'

Being a dancer himself what does he look for in dancers for his company? 'The technical things, you want them to have a broad range of movement as possible. But because its a small, company, it's a bit like being in a band. So you want people with a bit of individuality, so they can stand on their own.

'It's like a group of soloists. Each has to have something to contribute to the group. That's always been my approach. I started off with four dancers, myself and three others, and now it slightly bigger - but it's not the Royal Ballet, everyone gets to have their own moment to shine. And that individuality is really important, which isn't necessarily the case if you join a ballet company.'

The shock and awe of his earlier shows - which added to his reputation as the bad boy of British dance - were, he says, partly an attempt to provoke a reaction and partly an attempt to make dance more relevant.

'What got me that image of a bad boy was doing some provocative things that I thought initially I had to do just to keep the audience awake,' he laughs. 'I thought I had to put things in to make them sit up and pay attention. But those things are less extraneous now. Something that we used costume or props for, those ideas are now much more integrated into the movement.

'When I started to make my own stuff, it was something I felt I had to do because it seemed like dance wasn't relevant. No-one was making dance about the things that happen in ordinary people's lives. I felt that it had become very divorced from reality. That can happen in any discipline, whether you're a classical musician or whatever, you become very focussed and cannot see the wood from the trees.

'Somehow for me it was important to see the work grounded in some sort of reality that normal people could relate to. I keep reminding myself that though there might be references to other dances in my own, it's not something that I want the audience to necessarily get. It is a bit reading an having to get all these reference to other poetry or writing, I don't really want the audience to have to go and look things up.'

Michael was enthused by his last visit to Norwich in 2007. 'That was the culmination of the Stravinsky project, which was three different pieces to music by Stravinsky. That was really the beginning of a relationship with the festival. For me that was one of the best performances of the Le Noces, partly because of the space, the choir were much nearer to us, it was more intimate than the Barbican. So I'm very pleased to be involved again.'

And does he find audiences outside London react differently? 'The thing with London is that a lot of people have seen a lot of things I've done over the years, and perhaps that's less the case in Norwich. That's an exciting thing, that people are seeing things for the first time. You cannot rely on people knowing your history, and that's great that they don't have to know anything you've done. Each piece stands on it's own. It has to.'

t Michael Clark Company: Come, Been and Gone is at Norwich Theatre Royal on May 10 and 11. Tickets are �19-�6, under-25s �5, 01603 766400,