In a square of white light projected onto the floor, a male dancer knots his body into angular shapes: arms rigid, fists clenched, and head to one side. He curves forward through his back to assume what looks like a stretching position, holding his legs beneath bent knees, but pauses only for a split second before rolling again, one crooked leg pressing to the floor against the direction of his torso. Set within the opening moments of Michael Clark’s project for Tate Modern, part I (2010), the continuous unfolding of movement in this sequence makes it hard to quantify its compositional elements as discrete units. Each movement is exquisitely unpredictable, truncating our expectations for the movement phrase that it begins. There is a Cubist quality to the dancer’s striving to fully inhabit the space marked out by the flat white square on the floor, pressing his body’s surfaces to the ground, at times into near impossible contortions. But to think only of analytic Cubism’s geometries detracts from the work’s extraordinary emotional intensity. The choreographed exposure of the dancer’s body—set to the charged strains of David Bowie’s “Sweet Thing”—is almost painful in its intimation of psychological restlessness, as though the dance is a search, without apparent end, for a still place to be.
O (2005), the first work in Clark’s recent “Stravinsky Project,” (completed 2007) opened with the image of a single dancer inside a mirrored cube. Like the patch of white light in part I, this image summoned the enclosed space of the studio, nodding reflexively to the solipsism of a dancer’s, or an artist’s, endeavor. By proposing an image of the studio as part of his performances—the wooden ballet barre also features in recent work—Clark challenges performance’s necessary public-ness (and the inevitably social aspect of choreographing for a company), exploring the aspect of learning and making dance that is a fundamentally private activity. In fact, one of the most compelling things about Clark’s work is the sense that it derives from an inner and innate impulse towards movement. At first, I understood the daily theater of the Michael Clark Company studio, relocated to Tate’s Turbine Hall during their seven-week residency, as a revelation of process. Looking at the broken-down steps and phrases performed often at walk-through speed brought me to a new understanding of Yvonne Rainer’s famous statement from the 1960s: “Dance is hard to see.” Through the warm-up, daily classes (Cunningham or ballet technique), and rehearsals, the lexicon of physical movement and training of the dancers’ capacities, which are often spectacularly subsumed by the speed of changing form onstage, were demonstrated with new clarity.