Michael Clark was Born Again

On nine consecutive nights in a warehouse near Kings Cross
by Sophie Fiennes

Michael Clark was calling me from Angers in France sometimes three times a day, sometimes in the middle of the night - “I want you to come and see what I am doing” - left plaintive messages; “Don’t forget me dear”.

I was working with filmmaker Peter Greenaway and met Michael when he played Caliban in Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books. Michael and I had connected immediately on account of our mutual ability to recite the complete lyrics to David Bowies ’Diamond Dog’s LP.

So following some TV post production in Paris, I took a train to Angers where Michael was collaborating with New York choreographer Stephan Petronio on a dance to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring - they had each selected sections of the music to work with. Michael ran a sequence for me that afternoon - performed by a young American dancer called Joanne Barrett.

Despite zero knowledge of dance, I was instantly transfixed. This solo for the sacrificial chosen maiden who dances herself to death, played brilliantly with and against the bold dynamics of the music. There was a fusion of violence and vulnerability. I didn’t fully understand it. It was elusive and strangely coherent. The experience held me, and after some seductive cajoling from Michael I dared myself to return to London as his ‘manager’.

We resuscitated his relationship with the Arts Council sufficiently to hire a Territorial Army hall in Hammersmith for rehearsals and employ four dancers including Joanne and two Michael Clark & Co veterans: Julie Hood and Matthew Hawkins. Michael and Stephen went their separate ways, but Michael whose creative process is slow, cautious and almost hermetic, wanted to take his Rite of Spring further. Augmented by music including Sondheim’s Send in the Clowns, T Rex’s Cosmic Dancer, the Sex Pistols’ Submission and an appearance by Michael’s mother Bessie (who famously appeared topless and gave birth to Michael in the show) the performance was now called Michael Clark's Modern Masterpiece.

We bluffed our way through some fierce negotiations with a Japanese promoter and fixed a Japanese tour for December 1991. I soon developed an anxious awareness of the before and after effects of methadone, a taste for Bessie’s slow-cooked beef and the ability to hold my own against the formidable Leigh Bowery, who designed the costumes and also appeared in the show.

The performance developed considerably through the Japanese performances. We had booked dates throughout the UK for the following Spring-Early Summer, but for Michael the London run was a ritual. This audience had grown with him and loved him, and with a feeling of momentum behind the work, he wanted to do something special for London. As he put it, ‘I think its good for the audience to invest something of themselves when they come to see the work.’ He was concerned about the context for the work, the impact of the environment on the work. He wanted to do something site-specific and knew that the person who would have the knowledge and courage for this was Michael Morris.

The timing was fortuitous, as Michael Morris had just become involved with Artangel and so under the specially abbreviated show title of Mmm… Michael Clark was born again on nine consecutive nights in a warehouse near Kings Cross, London in June 1992.

One significant development to the show following Japan was the introduction ofTheme by Public Image Limited (PIL). The choreography was made with some urgency following several chaotic weeks in mid-March. The track itself is raw, slow and like a strangulated banshee wailing through leaden bass guitar notes, the voice of Johnny Lydon cries out words hard to distinguish, except for a moaning “I… wish I could die…” Out of the wings Michael appeared, his exceptionally arched foot followed by classically sculpted legs, his torso leaning impossibly far back obediently following his thrust pelvis, and his beautiful face held strangely expressionless. In this mesmerising dressage, he crossed to the diagonal corners of the stage collecting a dancer from each wing. The quartet proceeded to make formations in unison and then in simultaneous solos. PIL was always charged with a quality that I have never felt in any other situation.

All work is ephemeral, and live work is always hinged in its moment. The particular nature and staging of Mmm… has allowed it to live on in the imaginations of those who saw it, and become myth for those who didn’t.