Coming clean: Michael Clark’s no-singing, all-dancing rock and roll tribute

MICHAEL Clark, the one-time enfant terrible of modern dance, has come a long way in the past decade. Now the Scot is heading home with his latest production – a homage to three rock greats – and a piece for the Cultural Olympiad in which members of the public get the chance to work with one of the finest choreographers Scotland has ever produced

THERE is a moment, in Michael Clark’s current work, come, been and gone, when a dancer wearing a jacket covered in syringes walks on stage. At the same time Lou Reed’s Heroin crashes through the speakers. For those in the audience aware of the drug abuse in Clark’s increasingly distant past, lyrics such as “when I put a spike into my vein” give pause for thought.

These days, that’s all it is, a thought. Clark’s career has gone from strength to strength over the past decade, and if ever there was a sign that he’s “clean” enough for the establishment, it’s his commission to close the Cultural Olympiad in Scotland. Taking place on 8 and 9 September this year, The Barrowland Project will see Clark’s own performers come together with 50 non-dancers, on the dancefloor of the legendary Glasgow venue.

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It’s almost 25 years since Clark last created a work in Scotland, so it’s good to have the Aberdeen boy back. Before that, however, the company is touring three Scottish venues with come, been and gone, Clark’s homage to the music of David Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. Including the bold syringe section.

“When I first made that solo, I was very aware that it was close to the edge in terms of being so much to do with my own life,” says Clark. “There was an aspect to it that might not be comfortable. But the daring of Lou Reed’s song is what I tried to achieve with the dance. I tried to make choreography that was as challenging for the dancers as Heroin must have been for people when they first listened to it.”

Clark’s admiration for “the holy trinity of rock”, as he calls them, started as a teenager in Aberdeen, when the sight of Bowie on TV, dressed as Aladdin Sane, reassured him there were other people out there who saw things differently. Fast forward nearly 40 years to March this year, and Clark’s company is performing another Bowie-inspired piece at the Whitney Museum in New York, when he hears that Bowie himself is in the building.

“I found a way to get a message to him to say, ‘Please come and see the show. And I heard back that he had other plans, but sent his love. Then he came in anyway to have a look, and stayed for the whole piece.” So, how was it to finally meet the man so vital to his adolescent development, and still such a big influence on this work?

“It was very, very nice. I was outside having a cigarette afterwards and he came over. He was very funny, actually. We talked about a lot of different things, but the first thing he said to me was, ‘This make-up, costume and rock’n’roll thing, it’ll never catch on.’ He had that kind of wit.”

With Clark’s enduring love of rock music, it seems especially fitting that the Barrowland should be home to his next project. Asked by the Cultural Olympiad (the cultural wing of London 2012) to select an appropriate venue, Clark travelled to Glasgow to look at his options. “Barrowland was the first place I went to, and I hadn’t realised it was such an amazing-looking place, as well as having all that history. People I know who play there, say it’s amazing to perform in, but the dancefloor itself is beautiful, which I guess you don’t always see when you go and watch bands there.”

Clark’s plan is to create a large-scale piece for couples, who will dance alongside his own company. Ask any professional dancer who has worked with Clark what one of his defining features as a choreographer is, and chances are they’ll say, “changing his mind”. Right up until the last minute, Clark is backstage rethinking and reorganising the show. Which is fine for a trained dancer who can think on their feet. Less so for a lay person.

“That’s part of the challenge for me,” says Clark. “When I did something with non-dancers at the Tate Modern in London, we saw them once a week, so I had a week in between to think about whether some things were just too hard, and had to be changed. But I tried, as much as possible, not to change my mind. It’s a good exercise for me in doing that.”

Co-ordinated by the Dance House in Glasgow, the call for non-dancers is already out there. The opportunity to work with one of the finest choreographers Scotland has ever produced (and one of the nicest people you could wish to talk to) is a big draw. But Clark is still keen to ensure people feel valued: “The last thing I want is for it to be exploitative. You have to ask people to be somewhere at a certain time every day, but I just don’t want it to feel like an unpaid job. So I’m trying to clarify for myself, what’s in it for them? And I guess it’s the experience. I want the people involved to get something out of it – and I think they will.”

Clark is assuring participants that they won’t have to do the same moves as his own hugely talented dancers. Instead, he’ll be incorporating more “everyday” movement into the work. “Everyone can dance,” he says, “everyone does dance, whether they’re aware of it or not.”

Which could be a sensitive issue for Clark himself. Once renowned for his captivating on-stage presence, with his 50th birthday approaching next month, Clark’s performance days are pretty much over. Like all dancers, the transition from performer to onlooker hasn’t been easy. “It’s very hard, because dancing has defined my whole life, its something I’ve always done. Lots of people never really get over it, but for me it continues on through the dancers that I work with.”

Given that the Barrowland Project is all about engaging non-dancers, will Clark be stepping out onto the dancefloor with them? “Oh I’m sure I’ll be in it. I’m looking forward to it, I love the venue and I’m really glad that we can do it there. The non-dancers we’ve worked with before don’t seem to be nervous at all, but I obsessively repeat what I’m about to do, over and over again before I go on stage.”

As for the looming half century that’s just around the corner, the one-time enfant terrible of modern dance is taking it in his stride. “I feel absolutely fine about it. I was warned about turning 30, and that it was going to be a difficult time, and the same about 40 – but turning 50 isn’t something I’m anxious about. My friends are more anxious about what we’re going to do than I am, but I really don’t mind not doing anything special. I’ve had an amazing year so far, and I hope that continues.”

• come, been and gone is at Macrobert, Stirling on Wednesday and Thursday; His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, 5 June; Eden Court, Inverness, 8 June. The Barrowland Project will be at Barrowland, Glasgow, 8 and 9 September