BARE bums, The Fall, heroin. Any mention of Michael Clark, the Scottish enfant terrible of British dance, usually contains all of the above at some point. Throw in the words “punk” and “provocateur” and you’ve probably got the full set.

Clark is the man who reinvented contemporary dance 40 years ago now. In i-D magazine’s summary of the 1980s, a decade of i-Deas (and don’t those lower-case letters locate it in time), Clark was celebrated as “the man who with the help of his company dragged contemporary dance kicking and screaming out of a fusty closet full of legwarmers and crumpled photos of Nureyev …”

Clark may well have shaken up the orthodoxies of modern dance, but he did it on the foundation of his rigorous knowledge of the classical tradition. And in doing so he helped contemporary dance reach a far wider audience.

“He brought dance to a whole new audience,” BodyMap designer and regular collaborator Stevie Stewart points out. “We mustn’t forget that he really opened the doors to new audiences. Young and old people who had not really been involved before became fans that’s quite an amazing achievement. He made dance history.”

From the archive: Mark E Smith - The Herald interview 2012

Part of the appeal was the provocation, of course. Dancers baring their bottoms in Leigh Bowery costumes, The Fall playing live on stage during his show I Am Curious, Orange (with Brix Smith playing her guitar atop a giant rotating hamburger), the dancer Kate Coyne in a costume covered in syringes in a routine soundtracked by Heroin by the Velvet Underground (a dance that drew on Clark’s own experience with addiction), Clark’s mum Bessie even “giving birth” to her son on stage in his 1992 show, Mmm…

“I never really had a plan, except to express myself as purely as possible,” Clark said in 2016.

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And yet speak to anyone who knows him and it’s not the provocateur they talk about. Yes, they will acknowledge the man’s perfectionism, but the person behind the tutus and the desire to shock seems very different. The words that tumble out are “funny”, “charming, and “shy”.

Born in 1962 Clark grew up in Aberdeenshire and started Scottish country dancing at the age of four. He joined the Royal Ballet when he was 13. By his early twenties he was making a name for himself for his dancing and his choreography. Very soon the legend of Michael Clark, the punky, provocative, self-destructive genius was being embellished in newspapers and style magazines and on TV. He became a face, indeed, one of the faces of the decade.

There was a cost to that. After retreating to his mother’s house to deal with his addiction in the mid-1990s, he returned at the end of the decade and has spent the 21st century continuing to refine his unique take on contemporary dance.

But who is the man behind the myth? As Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer, an exhibition dedicated to his work prepares to open at V&A Dundee, we ask those who know him best what he is like to work with.

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Matthew Hawkins

Originally from south London, Matthew Hawkins trained at the Royal Ballet and worked with Michael Clark between 1984 and 1992. He currently lives in Edinburgh and is working on V&A’s outreach programme for the exhibition.

“I met Michael in 1981. We both joined the Merce Cunningham and John Cage summer course to study choreography. I witnessed his dancing and saw how the guy moved and saw how serious he was.

“The great thing about working with him in his company, which I started to do in 1984 and continued off and on until 1992, was I could see him every day. I could see him dance. You could really see at first-hand what he was doing.

“He was very friendly and very funny. He never stopped talking. He was just this very amusing and endearing Scot. It was always fun. That was very much part of the ambience. And we were equals too. We were all on equal footing, equally paid, experiencing the same conditions.

 

“After he’d first engaged me for his company, I had a terrible injury, and I had a leg in plaster. The next time he saw me I had a plaster cast and with the imminent start of rehearsals he didn’t bat an eyelid, he really didn’t. Where anybody with less nerve would have thought, ‘I’ve got to get another dancer now,’ he completely trusted that I would rehabilitate. He allowed me to not only join his company but also build my recovery into getting to the opening night. It was a real journey for me. I can’t think of many people who would have had that sort of faith and kindness.

“They still talk about I am Curious, Orange in Scotland. If I’m in a pub and somebody asks what I do and I say, ‘I’m a dancer,’ they’ll say, ‘I remember seeing I am Curious, Orange.’ And I’m very proud to say they would have seen me in it.”

Stevie Stewart

BodyMap was one of the fashion stories of the 1980s. Set up by Stevie Stewart and David Holah, its innovative use of knits, prints and stretch fabrics (plus the odd ruffle) helped re-establish London as a fashion hotspot. BodyMap started providing costumes for the Michael Clark company in the mid-1980s and Stewart has continued to do so up to the present day. She once dressed him up as a dinosaur.

HeraldScotland: No Fire Escape in HellNo Fire Escape in Hell

“David and I met Michael around 1984. We’d seen him in Dutiful Ducks, a Richard Alston piece, and we’d loved that. He’d moved down from Scotland to London, and we’d see him around the scene. I do remember meeting him and him being charming and shy and just lovely.

“David and I were quite immersed in dance ourselves. We actually went to ballet classes later in life inspired by Michael.

“We just had our first solo catwalk collection and he wanted something from that. That was a mesh graphic black and white print and we had holes cut out. And so, we carried that through to dance costumes. We had bodycon body suits with holes cut out, exposing bits of their bodies. Like portholes.

“Just seeing the costumes on amazing dancers with amazing choreography was a pleasure. It was really thrilling. We had never made costumes before. It’s a completely different thing to making fashion.

“And then Michael started choreographing our shows. There was one show in 1986. At the end all the models on the stage were doing a Michael Clark dance routine, which was amazing. That show went around the world.

“He left it up to us at the beginning. Over the decades I’ve been working with him, the costume and the choreography has become purer. It’s developed into a clearer line. Things are quite graphic and sometimes quite strict in a way. He’s a perfectionist, always striving for perfection, always working right up to the last minute. But that’s a good thing.

“What has kept me working with him all these years? Well, he is a genius.”

Kate Coyne

Coyne trained at the Royal Ballet school and the London School of Contemporary Dance and has worked with the Rambert Dance company, DV8 and others, but has spent much of this century working with Clark.

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“I first saw a couple of his productions at Sadler’s Wells when I was a teenager, and they were unlike anything I’d ever seen. There was this amazing rigour to the dancing, but it was combined with what seemed like chaotic elements that were visually very rich, and I found that really exciting. And the chaos of it. It looked like it was still being worked on. It was very arresting.

“I was already in dance training. I knew I wanted to be a dancer from four years old.

“I started working with him in … I think it was 1997. He worked in a very quiet way. He was a dancer too and it was just the two of us in the studio and I really loved the attention to detail that he put into his work. He was very specific about what he wanted. He knows exactly what he wants, and he will not compromise.

“I danced in the syringe costume in Come, Been and Gone. Michael doesn’t need to know whether anyone doing that solo has ever tried heroin. It’s not of any importance to him. What is important to him is the way it comes out. So, it’s purely physical. You’re not telling a story. It’s such a hard solo that that all you can focus on is getting through. It’s almost designed that way. You’re at a point of complete exhaustion halfway through that solo.

HeraldScotland: 21. Oxana Panchenko and Clair Thomas in come_been and gone_ 200921. Oxana Panchenko and Clair Thomas in come_been and gone_ 2009

“Michael is very charming, incredibly intelligent, very sensitive, very sure of what he does, I think. He’s a true artist. He is challenging sometimes … How? Timekeeping. Michael might not come to the studio if he’s not ready and then you’ll be sitting around. But I’ve worked with Michael for a long time as people tend to. I’m a patient person with that because I think it’s worth it in the end.

“Michael’s been my employer as a dancer for the final 20 years of my career. As he has matured, I see the dance shining through more and more. The chaos has been reduced or faded out slightly so you can truly see the dance.”

Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer opens at V&A Dundee opens next Saturday and runs until September 4. Visit vam.ac.uk for more information and to book tickets