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Michael Clark’s ‘Modern Masterpiece’

‘It showed the power of placing something dumb and ugly next to something glorious’

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Michael Clark, Mmm... , performance documention at King's Cross Depot, London, 1992. Courtesy: Michael Clark Company and Artangel, London; photograph: Stephen White

In 1992, I dreamed about Michael Clark’s Modern Masterpiece for weeks. These were not image dreams or even nocturnal fantasies (though Clark, dancing naked save for a snake-like fur muff, was an intoxicating and confusing spectacle) but a persistent memory of sound. Deep, lacerating breaths of exhaustion. Hiccupy gulps of effort as a body propelled itself through the air. And, above all, the horrifying slap as it slammed itself from height – bare-chested, breasts down – onto the black vinyl floor of Tramway’s stage.

This, it turned out, was what dance sounded like when you were a sweat-flick away from the performers. This was the earthy, bodily evidence of dance’s wounding physicality, extracted from the puckering politeness of proscenium arch and pointe shoes.

Clark had been known in London dance circles for a decade by the time he created Mmm…, as Modern Masterpiece became known. No doubt older, more sophisticated people than myself knew all about him – Leigh Bowery and the other artists, performers, designers and superstars of the London club world that Clark drew into his circle. Perhaps they were familiar to the point of ennui with the music used in Mmm… (PiL, T. Rex, Igor Stravinsky et al.). But to me it was all brand new, the whole universe of the thing.

In 1992, my worldview was still sharply defined by the binaries of my teenage years. Mmm… upset what I thought I knew. Here beauty, precision, passion, effort, sincerity and classical music – all elements of what I considered the adult sphere – shared the stage with puerility, crassness, flippancy, irreverence, tawdry glamour and punk. These fuck-you elements were more familiar territory but, in my unsophisticated exercising of them, I had positioned them in bold opposition to the rest. Among other things, Mmm… suggested that, within the same gesture, you could express love (even filial love), be wilfully offensive and do both sincerely. It showed the power of placing something dumb and ugly next to something glorious.

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Michael Clark, Mmm... , performance documention at King's Cross Depot, London, 1992. Courtesy: Michael Clark Company and Artangel, London; photograph: Stephen White

Michael Clark, Mmm... , performance documention at King's Cross Depot, London, 1992. Courtesy: Michael Clark Company and Artangel, London; photograph: Stephen White

Choreography so tender it stopped breath was followed by Bowery running across the stage in a giant, shaggy fanny costume with the word CUNT embroidered down the front. In one scene, the cast wore vinyl toilet costumes with their heads poking from the lidded bowls. Perhaps the most shocking presence to my student eyes was Clark’s mother, Bessie, who made an appearance on stage topless, with her pale, stripped torso poking out the top of a mountainous costume that echoed its soft tumbling folds.

The noise of flesh hitting linoleum that so disturbed my nights came at the end of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (1913), which formed the core of Mmm…. Naked but for baggy white Y-fronts, with a square strip of black tape on the upper lip forming a makeshift Hitler moustache, the dancers retreated until only the sacrificial maiden remained in place. The sounds I dreamed of were of a young woman apparently dancing herself to death.

Embedded within that performance was the idea that a piece of art might be so important that it could encompass death. Yes, the idea was Stravinsky’s – or, rather, it was the composer’s interpretation of something ancient, pagan, possibly imagined – but its expression by Clark and his company was of my time. In retrospect, even the space it was performed in – the raw, post-industrial caverns of Glasgow’s Tramway in the early 1990s – was particular to that moment.

A few years later, I might have noticed the cocksure gesture of titling this new Rite of Spring – a modernist work that caused a riot at its debut – Michael Clark’s Modern Masterpiece. I would have been equipped with a set of interpretative tools to approach a work like Mmm….

I didn’t need them. 

Hettie Judah is a writer based in London, UK.

Issue 200

First published in Issue 200

January - February 2019
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