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Michael Clark, Enfant Terrible of British dance, is Subject of New Exhibit at the Barbican Art Gallery

With Ellen van Schuylenburch in “Hail the New Puritan.”Credit...Richard Haughton

‘I try to make dance that isn’t about dance, not just for other dancers to see.’  Michael Clark

Moving between the worlds of dance, art, music and fashion, Michael Clark is a defining figure in the British cultural landscape. The exhibition explores the Scottish dancer and choreographer’s work and creative collaborations, marking the 15-year anniversary of Michael Clark Company’s partnership with the Barbican as an Artistic Associate. Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer unfolds as a constellation of portraits of Clark, through the eyes of the artists who have worked with or been inspired by him. Film, sculpture, painting, costume and photography by his collaborators are exhibited alongside rare archival material, placing Clark within a wider cultural context.

Born in Aberdeen in 1962, Clark began traditional Scottish dance at the age of four before being invited to study at the Royal Ballet School, London, in 1975. He joined Ballet Rambert in 1979, thereby discovering a more contemporary form of dance. Following Clark’s participation in a summer school with revolutionary choreographer Merce Cunningham and avant-garde composer John Cage, he created his first independent work in 1982, at the age of 20. He then became choreographer-in-residence at London’s multi-disciplinary Riverside Studios in 1983 and created Michael Clark & Company in 1984.

Surrounded and inspired by London’s club and punk cultures, Clark’s choreography changed the landscape of British dance by weaving together pantomime, drag performance, queer subculture and post-punk energy with the virtuosity and grace of his classical training. His work redefined gender representation and stereotypes within the heteronormative tradition of ballet history, advocating sex as a repressed part of modern dance. Clark explains: ‘There’s this mistaken idea we were just prancing about in platform shoes and bare bums to go against the grain. I was reacting to a particular dance ethos  — which had always seemed to mean saying no to spectacle, to comedy or narrative, no to virtuosity. I wanted to say yes to all those things, to acknowledge those elements as part of the visual aspect of dance, which has to include how people are dressed.’

Featuring outrageous costumes and set designs, Clark’s choreography challenged notions of conformity and conservative values within the context of Thatcher’s Britain. Trained in the Cecchetti Method’s principles of clarity, balance and harmony, Clark created a tension between his training’s formal authority and his personal iconoclastic energy, pushing the extremes of dance. At the forefront of interdisciplinary experimentation, Clark continues to broaden the possibilities for both dance and visual art. By exploring the influence of Clark’s collaborators’ diverse disciplines on his work, this exhibition establishes his radical presence within Britain’s cultural history.

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