In a talk at the opening night performance of Michael Clark Dance’s inaugural season at the Barbican, a young man invited his friends in on the secret. He was with two female friends — a tall, asymmetrical petite with pink lips and her name drizzled in glitter on the back of her head. He wore a shiny black cardigan and crisp white shirt and yet they ignored him, moved on to a table. The girl who had seemingly singled him out said a phrase that was clear to those who had ever been ostracized at school: “You can’t have your cake and eat it too!”
If ballet dancers are physically hard-to-ignore, Clark is a particularly vulnerable species. Born in Thailand in 1960, he only began dancing as a seven-year-old after he fell through the fence of his dance class and needed to learn to dance the steps of a different piece of music, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” The first time he stepped onto the stage, he was so nervous and shaking that he could barely carry a straight leg up.
Clark, now 64, has an air of melancholy. This restless charm is best seen in the dance he has created for this British company, “Dance at the Speed of Light.” It pays tribute to one of his heroes, the French choreographer Georges de Kervern, who choreographed the Suite Voullez vous Plait, which is the ballet for which Clark is best known.
He describes “Dance at the Speed of Light” as a “love story.” Set to Hans Zimmer’s “The Music of Life,” it unfolds in multiple movements on a rocky, forest floor. There are vague undertakings to be shared, perhaps along the lines of French army jargon. At times, a girl’s romantic notion of love gets short shrift. At others, male dancers assume the roles of father figures.
At its heart, however, it is about the tension between adults and children, about protecting them and not doing so, about disappointments and the longing to be cared for.
The spirit of optimism of Kervern permeates “Dance at the Speed of Light,” an atmosphere that Clark achieves by means of comically morose character sketches, mostly revolving around a little boy who sits on a remote rock surrounded by mushrooms, trees and a hole. These scenes contrast with all of the joyous, jubilant dance that Clark maintains at the other end of the evening. It includes two dancers whose bodies are fully formed, who look like ants. Yet they constantly remind the audience that they are only a tiny chunk of the chaos on stage. It is a reminder that even ants can be rescued, once clumsily spiritedly put together.
When Clark’s dancers play “Wheel of Death,” the abstract ballet, they do not just dance their hearts out — they drown out the voice of a clock. They, too, play mother and father, mother and son. Each time the young boy stands up, the boys look directly into the audience and disappear into the audience. For this fleeting moment, when he stands up in an exhausted state and acknowledges the audience, the dancers are free to dance and express their own emotion — a necessary consideration for all of them.
“If you are alone, never say ‘I’m sorry,’” says one of his original dancers, Harriet Wilkin, after the performance. The show was composed of choreography that he composed and danced, and of the choreography Clark commissioned for the show.
Clark took 25 members of the original cast with him to New York in 2012, one of the longest-running tours in the company’s history. He now has a wider berth to roam. And for all of us, that let’s-hear-from-the-people experimental spirit remains alive.