Michael Clark interview

Dancing with demons

Michael Clark feared that Mmm could send him into a downward spiral. He talks to Kelly Apter about his struggles with his past.

It’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it that counts, as the saying goes. And from an early age, Michael Clark had beauty. A beautiful face, a beautiful spirit and a beautiful style that other dancers tried, and failed, to emulate. And what he did, and continues to do, with that beauty has had the dance world chattering behind their programmes for almost three decades. This month sees the long-awaited Scottish premiere of his powerful work Mmm at Glasgow’s Tramway as part of New Territories. Drawing on Clark’s eventful past, it is a brutal affirmation of life.

Clark’s on and off stage activity has shocked, appalled, inspired, touched and singled him out as one of the most important dance artists Britain has ever produced. An art auction held in London last year to raise funds for Clark’s company attracted contributions from Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas and Rachel Whiteread among others and raised close to £1m. Not bad for a boy from small town Aberdeenshire.

On the day we speak, Clark has returned to the nest. He is in Scotland to visit the woman who has been his salvation on more than one occasion. In 1988, when Clark first retired from dance aged just 26, his mother moved down to London to nurse her son through a heroin addiction. Then again in 1994, when his close friend Leigh Bowery died, Clark headed back to his mother’s arms for a long period of rehabilitation. But today’s visit is on far happier terms - it’s Mrs Clark’s birthday, and a trip back home was long overdue.

The mother/son bond was first put to the test in 1975, when a 13-year-old Clark moved 500 miles to join the Royal Ballet School. ‘Initially I was very homesick,’ recalls Clark. ‘And whether it was conscious or not, I had to justify putting myself and my family through that separation. I had a lot of catching up to do because I’d obviously been a big fish in a small pond up in Scotland. There was another Scot in the same year as me, who is apparently a bricklayer now, and I remember him saying to me, “don’t worry Mike, I was shit when I first got here” - those were his words of comfort.’

But Clark soon became a star pupil. Riding roughshod over years of tradition, he would regularly get in trouble for wearing earrings or inappropriate clothing. By the end of his four years there, Clark knew exactly how much he could get away with. ‘I was playing a game with them. I waited until I was the lead in the school production before I got caught sniffing glue, so they couldn’t kick me out.’

The penchant for drugs may have already surfaced, but so too had the tenacious spirit which would see Clark form his own company at the tender age of 22. Having turned down a coveted place in the Royal Ballet Company, Clark switched allegiances and headed for the modern dance world at Rambert. But within two years he had itchy feet.

‘I told the other dancers at Rambert I was forming my own company and they said “get real”,’ says Clark. ‘But there was a life outside dance that I was also passionate about, like the bands I was going to see, and I felt there must be a way of bringing those things together.’

In the years that followed, Clark submerged himself in the worlds of music, art and clubbing. But it was his friendship with club owner, costume designer and larger than life character, Leigh Bowery that was to prove pivotal. The relationship raised its head again last year, when Clark was rehearsing Mmm.

Originally created in 1992, Mmm and its companion piece, O (seen at last year’s New Territories) take the music of Stravinsky as their starting point. From there, however, Clark moves into the realm of the Sex Pistols, Wire and other blasting rock material. If O is anything to go by, Mmm will be the highlight of this year’s New Territories festival.

It was shortly after Clark choreographed O and Mmm that Bowery died of pneumonia, sending Clark into a downward spiral of depression and drug abuse. So revisiting those times, while staging the works with new dancers in 2006, proved challenging. ‘I was scared that I would go back to all the bad habits of that time,’ admits Clark. ‘Losing somebody you love is very painful, but when that person is intrinsic to what you do it’s even harder.’

In recent London performances of Mmm, Clark himself has stepped into the role played by Bowery. At the age of 44, Clark’s appearances on stage have steadily decreased, but he’s not quite ready to disappear behind the scenes just yet. ‘I would never ask myself to do what my dancers are doing now, because I’m not capable of it,’ says Clark. ‘But dancing is so satisfying. When it’s going well, nothing beats it.’ He pauses and laughs ironically before adding ‘It’s better than any drug.’

Mmm, Tramway, Glasgow, Tue 27 & Wed 28 Feb.

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