Shocking, Punk and Classically Trained, Ballet's Michael Clark Creates a Whole New Jeté Set
Whatever he wears, Britain's Michael Clark sends shock waves through even the most worldly audiences by mixing classical moves with exuberantly erotic, particularly homosexual, imagery. As a result Clark, at 24, has become the darling of the dance Establishment. The Sunday Telegraph likened his "exhilarating and enjoyable" dances to the innovations of Voltaire, Swift and Shaw. The BBC said he combines "the charisma of Nureyev and Nijinsky and the ambiguous sex appeal of Mick Jagger in the '60s," and even the Times has found him "a catalyst, agent provocateur, sex symbol and idol...the wunderkind of the British new wave." Clark's own view of what he is doing doesn't help explain this adulation. "Traditional ballet is all the nice things," he says. "The work we do embraces more ugly and difficult things. Everything should be welcomed into dance, not just what is aesthetically pleasing. I like to introduce more blatant imagery."
And that certainly sells. Clark's six-performance U.S. appearance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this week has long been sold out, drawing a largely hip, young crowd that goes to the ballet about as often as it watches Wheel of Fortune. At BAM, Clark will be dancing his No Fire Escape in Hell, in which a long prosthesis at first hangs from his crotch; the work got a 15-minute ovation when it premiered in London last month. Even Madison Avenue has taken notice. Clark has posed for a Rose's Lime Juice ad under the heading "dance's post-punk prince."
Away from the spotlight, Clark is far more muted in his eccentricities. Gentle and languid, he seems an unlikely revolutionary as he chats while downing a lunch of cooked carrots and rye crackers smothered in Camembert and ketchup. In fact he can sound actually traditional. "Initially, my work might seem a bit risqué to me too," he concedes. "But not by the time I'm onstage after two or three months of rehearsals. It matters a lot to me that people like what I do."
Clark began dancing at 4 when he went with his two older sisters to Scottish folk dancing classes in Aberdeen, where his late father was a farmer. At 13, Clark's mother, a nurse, took him to London's Royal Ballet School. "I cried the whole way down," he says. "But when I got there, it was a relief to be with people who enjoyed dance as much as I did." He began sporting a spiky pink Mohawk and wound up at the top of the class. In 1979 he joined the London-based Ballet Rambert and soon was a principal dancer. Frustrated by the group's conventional style, he left after two years and formed his own company in 1984.
Clark lives in a London flat with his friend David Holah, a dancer and partner in the design firm Body Map, which numbers Boy George among its clients. Clark and Holah spend their time making costumes and refining scenes, with occasional nights out at such clubs as Limelight or the primarily gay Heaven club. Later this fall Clark will tour Europe and next year will perform in Australia and at the Los Angeles Festival. Wherever he goes, he hopes to bring new, young audiences to ballet, but, he adds with pride, his greatest fan is his mother, Bessie, who attends most of his shows. Yet his sisters "are the sorts of girls who would write angry letters to the papers about me if I wasn't their brother." He says that with pride too.