Michael Clark Company Pushes Boundaries At Glasgow’s Barrowland Ball Room

Review – ArtLyst’s Emily Sack travels to Glasgow for this exclusive report.

Michael Clark pushes boundaries.  Highly trained in classical ballet Clark’s vocabulary derives from traditional technique, but the visual experience of the Michael Clark Company is anything but traditional.  This past weekend the MCC put on three special performances at the legendary Barrowland Ballroom in Glasgow in a celebration of dance to close the London 2012 Festival.

The Barrowland Ballroom boasts a rich history as a venue for dance and more recently music.  The original building opened in 1934 and was the premiere dance hall of Glasgow.  A fire in 1958 largely destroyed the building, but the Barrowland Ballroom reopened in 1960 and has since been a stop for many big name tours.  The venue received rather negative attention in the late 1960s when three young women were found murdered after attending events at the Barrowlands.  The serial killer, nicknamed Bible John, was never apprehended, and this dark piece of the Barrowlands’ history is now embedded in the fabric of the venue’s identity.  For this performance, the ballroom returns to its roots as a dance venue, and Michael Clark utilizes the space to its utmost potential.  The maximum capacity of the space when used for concerts is 2100, which is modest for a venue of it’s reputation.  When used for The Barrowlands Project, several sets of bleachers surround the sprung floor placing the audience on level ground with the performers.  The intimacy of the space creates a new experience for viewers.

Michael Clark is used to performing in both traditional and non-traditional venues.  Last year saw the company perform in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, which is decidedly different from another Clark production that premiered at Lincoln Center in New York.  The list of dancers, musicians, directors, designers, etc. that have worked with Michael Clark form a Who’s Who list for the artistic community of the past several decades.  Recently Clark was highlighted in the V&A’s Postmodernism exhibition for his collaboration with Leigh Bowery and Charles Atlas in the project “Because We Must” from 1989. Each production by the company explores new movement and design becoming almost as much of a conceptual performance art piece as a dance performance.  Clark’s ability to continually morph and evolve undoubtedly contributes to the company’s continued success and acclaim.

The Barrowlands Project is unique for its incorporation of local non-dancers with the professional company.  The performance begins with a large group of dancers in black costumes derived from traditional Scottish kilts.  It is immediately apparent that the dancers vary significantly in age and experience.  The uniformity of costume and synchronisation of movement highlight the differences among the dancers as a celebration both of who they are as individuals and as the small part of the group.  This first portion of the performance relies heavily on geometry and formations.  The steps themselves are not overly complicated, but the intricate patterns create interest.

After the opening number the members of the Michael Clark Company take centre stage.  The programme is varied musically and stylistically demonstrating Clark’s dynamic choreography.  The professional dancers wear costumes in a deep royal blue, each of a slightly different cut.  As the performance continues a number of dancers change into bright redish-orange while others remain in blue.  The choice of complementary colours has a visual impact on the movement and creates the sense of opposing sides engaged in battle.  Throughout the performance there are a number of strong images that allude to a story, but there was not a definite narrative tying the segments together.  Rather than create clear vignettes, Clark’s choreography is designed to relate to the audience’s emotions, which is a more universal approach.

In a piece reminiscent of that performed at Tate Modern, the dancers emerge in black and white costumes bearing stools as props.  For this part, the lighting, which throughout the rest of the performance was also excellent, became integral to the movement.  A diagonal beam slices across the stage, and, with the rest of the space in darkness, the dancers are confined to this strong corridor of light.  The stools are topped with mirrors that reflect the lighting and cast highlights on the other dancers.  In many dance performances props take a secondary role, but Clark’s choreography fuses the dancer with the stool and the props never seem superfluous.

The performance concludes with an almost deafening chorus of bagpipes.  The sudden switch from dance to strictly music reminds the audience of the dual nature of the Barrowlands and highlights the venues excellent acoustics.  While the majority of the performance appeals to universal emotions, the finale firmly roots the project in Scotland.

From the above description it may seem that the hour-long performance was disjointed, but in reality, the experience of each of the different parts transitioned well to create a cohesive whole.  There was, however, a sharp contrast between the piece performed by the local dancers and that performed by the professional company.  At one point a number of the black-kilted figures run across the stage dividing the performance space, but there was little interaction between the two diverse groups of dancers.  The total performance was tied together with the subtle use of repetition and cannons.  Sequences previously performed were repeated in a different location uniting what could be disparate parts of the performance.

Clark’s choreography is deeply rooted within the tradition of classical ballet, but his skill is in making dance contemporary.  There is a clear influence of some of the greats of modern dance including Martha Graham, but Clark’s vocabulary is his own.  There is a certain androgyny in his choreography that is compelling to watch – male and female dancers are both graceful and strong.  For a brief part of the performance, one of the male dancers even donned pointe shoes, which are traditionally worn only by women.  The small company of dancers are highly trained in technique but also embrace the opportunity to be a bit quirky and more avant garde than traditional ballet.

The audience was seated very close to the performance space, and the spaces between bleachers became the “wings” for the dancers to enter and exit the stage.  The proximity of the viewers to the dancers removed any sense of illusion present in large opera house styled venues.  This intimate setting allowed the audience to really see not only the movement, but the dancers themselves, especially their facial expressions.  With seating on three sides of the stage there was rarely a clear front for the choreography, but at times sitting on the side led to less visibility of the dancers.  Clark utilised the architecture of the space to firmly root The Barrowlands Project as a site specific piece.  The columns supporting the ceiling became surfaces with which the dancers can interact.  The proximity of the audience to the performers did, however, result in a less cohesive overall picture of the stage.  On several occasions multiple dancers were performing on different parts of the stage and it was difficult to watch the parts simultaneously.  The viewers are forced to choose which piece to watch, and this choice is somewhat disquieting.

While there are times of discomfort, the overall feeling of the evening was one of community.  The dance community is often seen as exclusive, but Clark opened the doors to allow dozens of locals to participate in his performance.  The dancers rehearsed throughout the summer and were held to Clark’s high expectations in terms of practice and execution.  The journey of the local dancers is chronicled on the project’s website (http://www.barrowlandsproject.com/) and allows the dancers to express what the experience meant for them.  For some of the dancers the Barrowland Ballroom was of personal and well as local significance, for others the experience of working with Michael Clark was too great of an opportunity to pass up.  It was heartwarming to see members of the community shine, and after the performance, many received bouquets of flowers demonstrating the appreciation of friends and family.

The Barrowlands Project was a special event limited to just three sold-out performances; however the Michael Clark Company is extremely active throughout the dance season.  A performance of New Work (http://www.barbican.org.uk/theatre/event-detail.asp?ID=13338) was commissioned by the Barbican Centre and will be performed later this fall in London, Glasgow, Belfast, and Paris.  This performance will include two new pieces and continue Clark’s history of collaborating with musicians and designers to create a total artistic environment.  Any performance by Clark and his company are not to be missed.

Words and Image: Emily Sack © ArtLyst 2012

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