Twenty years after his first, and last visit to the festival, Michael Clark, the irreverent punk of dance, is back with a show devoted to rock stars.
As a young boy growing up in rural Scotland, Michael Clark had an epiphany in front of the TV. Watching David Bowie perform in all his colourful, unconventional glory, Clark suddenly realised he wasn’t the only one who saw life a little differently.
“I lived on a farm 40 miles outside Aberdeen,” explains Clark. “And Bowie was this strange creature I didn’t understand – but I wanted to. I remember the moment I saw him put his arm around Mick Ronson on Top of the Pops – it was like oh my God, there are other people like me out there.”
By the age of 13, Clark had left Scotland to train at the Royal Ballet School in London and the rest, as they say, is history. Well-documented history. Despite having just turned 46, the name Michael Clark is still synonymous with sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, usually to excess and often very publicly. These days, however, you’re more likely to find him creating intelligent works to Stravinsky than wearing a fake phallus on stage.
“That all seems like quite a distant thing to me now when I think about it,” says Clark. “I’ve certainly had m chaotic moments, but things are much more focussed now. How people use their bodies in everyday life is so fascinating to me, that I think there’s so much one can say without having to put a dildo on. Which is something I’ve obviously done in the past, but was maybe indicative of my age.”
Clark may have bid farewell to on-stage sex and off-stage drugs, but rock ‘n’ roll is still very much on the agenda. His new work for the Edinburgh International Festival features music by what Clark terms the “unholy trinity” of Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. All three of whom have helped shape the work of Clark – and many others – over the years.
“The theatricality of their music has always really appealed to me,” says Clark. “And also the physicality – Iggy Pop is such a physical performer, he’s amazing. They’re all key figures, and so many visual artists I know have been hugely influenced by them.”
Looking back, the Velvet Underground may have had a little too much influence on the impressionable young Clark. “Songs like Heroin and Waiting For My Man led me down all sorts of paths that I might not have gone down otherwise,” he says. “Not that I would ever blame another artist for doing that to me, but naively you sometimes think you have to understand these things from within.”
Clark’s much-publicised drug addiction is now a thing of the past, replaced by an all-consuming work ethic that has led to some stunning choreography in recent years. “When I’m working on something, I do get a bit hermit-like and isolate myself,” he says. “When I was choreographing the Stravinsky project, I listened solely to Stravinsky for a couple of years, which is a bit ridiculous. And tonight I came home from rehearsal and put on a Bowie song straight away. I do get quite wrapped up in what I’m doing.”
A homecoming of sorts, Clark says he’s “thrilled” to be playing the Edinburgh International Festival after a 20-year hiatus. And chances are, he’ll get a warmer critical reception than his debut outing at the Festival in the mid-80s. “I remember when we first performed there, the dance critics said ‘this doesn’t belong in the Festival, it should be late night cabaret’,” says Clark with a gentle laugh. “But then the kind of stuff I was making at that time, they might have had a point – which was kind of my point.”
Over the past five years, Clark’s work has attracted a host of well-deserved superlatives, making this new piece an exciting prospect for dance fans. Although it would seem his audience has more confidence in his ability than Clark himself. “When I first started making work, way back, I had no idea what I was doing,” recalls Clark. “Somebody believed in me but I didn’t know why. And it’s still a bit like that when you embark on something new – you’re so full of doubt. My report card at the end of each day is ‘could do better, try again tomorrow’ – but then that’s what keeps me going.”
Michael Clark Company, Edinburgh Playhouse, 28-31 August, 8pm, from £8, 0131 473 2000
If you like this, try Booking Dance Festival, Venue 150, 12-16 August