BRIGHTON, England — He's 25, a cult figure, an iconoclast, an impudent child with "a serenely beautiful androgynous face." He's been called seraphic, street savvy, disarming, pop chic, post-modern, post-punk and he's been accused of frivolity, rudeness, irreverence and "gleeful, anarchic ambisexuality."
All true. Yet when you meet Michael Clark in the cold light of morning, sitting in an ocean-front hotel parlor over a cup of tea, the bad boy of ballet is surprisingly wry, tender and--yes--tame.
Clark had just launched his latest program at Brighton's Theatre Royal two nights before. That morning he was mildly troubled. "Pure Pre-Scenes," a new work set to 12 Chopin preludes, and "Now Gods," the third act of his previously created "No Fire Escape in Hell," had drawn fire from the London Times' John Percival.
"He's a critic I respect ," Clark said, accounting for his dismay. The evening was the earliest incarnation of the program opening Friday at the Doolittle Theatre as part of the Los Angeles Festival.
"I wanted to do somethin' where there were things goin' on outside of the dance," he said of "Pre-Scenes," a piece in which the stage is divided and a classic dance occupies one side while cooking and assorted activities take place on the other (including slides, a drippingly erotic monologue over the sound system and some strutting around by extravagantly costumed designer Leigh Bowery).
"Since I finished 'No Fire Escape in Hell,' I was thinkin' about the next thing I wanted to do because two of the dancers (Dawn Hartley and Amanda King) had joined me for that project. Really, the startin' point for this piece was to make the work on them and, by doin' that, find out more about them as dancers--and also to stretch them."
The Aberdeen, Scotland-born Clark speaks in a marked accent, not quite recognizable as brogue, but one in which the endings of words frequently get dropped and sentences break in odd places. That day the voice wasn't much above a whisper and came across almost as languid as the small, dark, almond-shaped eyes that caress a subject more than they look at it.
What's unusual for him in "Pre-Scenes" is the classical music.
"It seems to dictate so much," he said. "I've tried workin' with it in the past--and workin' against it (for the Scottish Ballet) and somehow or other, by a miracle, because I made the dance against the music, the dances made it and looked like something completely proper. So I wanted to tackle some of this classical music again."
Clark chose the Chopin preludes because "like most young people who grow up watchin' television, I've got a short attention span and the preludes are nice an' short."
His ascent, paralleling that of one of the denizens of "A Chorus Line," has been nice and fast . Born into a non-dancing Scots family, Clark took to the ballet at 4, when he accompanied his sister to dance class. At 11, he appeared with the Scottish Ballet. Its director, Peter Darrell, thought enough of him to recommend him for the Royal Ballet School.
There he came under the tutelage of Richard Glasstone, who recognized his talent, gave him his first created role and steered his earliest choreographic efforts. He now teaches Clark's company. Other influences most often associated with Clark are those of Merce Cunningham and Karole Armitage.
"I think Merce is blamed for far too much, myself," Clark said. "Qui' frankly, I did a course with Merce for two weeks an' I went to the Cunningham studio off and on.
"It's not, I think, the kind of influence that might have filtered through to me via Karole, who I worked directly with, and Richard Alston (director of Ballet Rambert, where Clark spent slightly more than a year when he was 18) who studied with Merce. Anythin' vaguely abstract is called Cunningham-based now. In the end it's people you've worked closely with who influence you the most."
Clark created his own company in 1984 and since then has dazzled, bemused, infuriated, thrilled and shocked practically everybody.
Aside from the pseudo-sexual antics, which have ranged from the suggestive to the graphic, including prop phalluses, simulated castration and fellatio, he's fundamentally a born spoofer. In "New Puritans" he swallowed a goldfish. His "our caca phoney H. our caca Phoney H." included songs from "Hair." (It also wittily repeated the title because, Clark said, "it was only an hour long.") Another piece was called "Not H.AIR," "because," said Clark, "we all had no hair. We had these fantastic costumes with hair all over them."
Wild costumes (tights with holes that expose buttocks, transvestism, fascist uniforms, platform heels) and new hair styles monthly (gold-tipped Mohicans, spikes, shaved areas of the head and crazy colors) are a large part of the shock value attributed to Clark's work, but Clark denies this was done merely to attract attention.