Michael Clark’s triptych of dances inspired by David Bowie’s death, first performed at the Barbican last year, remains much the same in this reprise. The zen-like beauty of the first movement to Erik Satie’s piano studies seems even more elegiac in retrospect. The sections that follow, to songs from albums by Patti Smith and Bowie, have lyrics permeated with visions of death. Yet the dancing is life enhancing and the audience leaves on a high of pleasure.
Act I, to a selection of Satie’s ‘medieval’ miniatures (written before the Monotones and Gymnopédies used by Frederick Ashton) has the eight dancers of Clark’s present company perform as a tight-knit ensemble. They move in unison at first, the angles of their limbs matching as precisely as a corps de ballet’s. Their control is astounding, not a wobble between them, as they time their changes of position to the piano’s emphatic notes.
The group splits into different combinations, in sequences that will be repeated at the end. The formal structure includes quartets, trios and duets, with an impressively sustained solo by Daniel Corthorn, who resembles Clark as a young dancer. Loudly amplified, the music, with its assertions and quiet responses, gives the performance a sense of solemn ritual. Clark, as mischievous as Satie, provides moments of po-faced humour: a woman is carted off into the wings upside down, like a piece of furniture, by two men; a dancer props a leg on a partner who suddenly hops away. The stage picture flickers when all eight combine, each performing signature moves facing in different directions.
Charles Atlas’s lighting, changing colour with the music, makes the dancers appear mobile sculptures. What bliss to be able to watch dance in such absolute clarity! In Act II, however, his video installation, Painting by Numbers, provides an alluring distraction. The music is Patti Smith’s Land, a 10-minute song cycle. (Clark’s title for his triptych comes from its last words, about ‘a man dancing around to a simple rock & roll song’.) The lyrics are surreal, unintelligible; having looked them up, I realise that the choreography reflects some of them, while veering into balletic enchaînements and punk rock gyrations.
Clark’s dancers, though less rigorous than they were in Act I, still appear coolly detached. In Patti Smith’s borrowings from deviant writers in her lyrics, a boy is brutally raped by another youngster. Tall Harry Alexander enacts a duet with Corthorn, manipulating him without emotion in erotically suggestive positions. Atlas’s video projection bursts into a constellation of numerals as the surrealist lyrics equate ecstasy and execution.
Act III, entitled my mother, my dog and CLOWNS! is set to two Bowie albums: Blackstar and Diamond Dogs. It features the pelvic-centred choreography that Clark developed after his association with Stephen Petronio in the 1980s. Dancers hold their bodies at an angle, thrusting their pelvis forward and rotating their hips, keeping their arms by their sides. For Blackstar, they wear silvery latex costumes against a black background. The lyrics are full of images of death – it was the last song Bowie released before he died in January 2016.
Kate Coyne, former dancer with Clark’s company and now its associate director, stalks through in a black cloak, the second time with a veil over her face. (Clark himself no longer puts in an enigmatic shrouded appearance – at least not on the night I was present). In the next song, Future Legend, a female dancer on pointe wears a black blindfold, another ‘solitary candle’ facing extinction. The dancers’ tangerine costumes, resembling Bowie on the cover of his Diamond Dogs album, are those they wore in a previous Barbican production, come, been and gone. Clark is a great recycler.
Oxana Panchenko has a solo in which she goes berserk, drumming her heels, to the demented jazz piano in Aladdin Sane. After what looks like controlled anarchy by six dancers, they leave the stage serenely in a line, clicking their fingers to Bowie’s downbeat ending.
That’s it – Clark is wise in leaving us wanting more. Let’s hope this repeat of last October’s show isn’t yet another swan song. Surely he has more to say, with dancers as fine as these.