It was during the 80s that Michael Clark burst onto London’s dance scene, and even now his name is still linked to that heady decade of punks and conservatives. Clark, an enfant terrible of the former, was in the habit of shocking the latter with his theatrical, sexually-explicit dance spectacles. It was no surprise that his company’s first Australian tour, in 1987, was panned as too provocative, too incomprehensible.

Daniel Corthon in Clarke's <i>To a Simple Rock'n'Roll Song</i> © Prudence Upton
Daniel Corthon in Clarke's To a Simple Rock'n'Roll Song
© Prudence Upton

Three decades later, the tables have turned. Clark’s to a simple rock’n’roll…song, his 2016 tribute to David Bowie, has been brought to Australia for its broad appeal. And Clark, in turn, has provided a triptych of mature minimalism and unforgiving technical precision. We are again reminded that before he was a punk provocateur, he was a Royal Ballet School prodigy.

The triptych opened, not to rock’n’roll, but to the solemn piano chords of Erik Satie’s Ogives. This was Satie Studs / Ogives Composite, Clark’s tribute to the composer, and to the dances set to his music by Sir Frederick Ashton, Merce Cunningham, and Yvonne Rainer.

In composing Ogives, Satie was said to have been inspired by the gothic arches of Notre Dame Cathedral and the undying sound of church organ pipes. Indeed, something of the austerity of the cloister and the removed ecstasy of contemplation lingered in Clark’s choreography, touching it with an otherworldly beauty. The dancers, clad in simple monochrome unitards, moved through a series of soaring balances and poses, each sculpted with a singularly pure sense of harmony, stillness, and line. These lines were further enhanced by Charles Atlas’ lighting: azure blue, flushing to soft gold and rose like quiet vaults of sky. Against this the dancers’ shapes stood outlined like a Grecian pantheon, and one got the distinct feeling of being among the statues of antiquity come to life. The effect was heightened by the slightly inhuman, quixotic touches gently impressed on each pose – a disjointed angling of the head here, a flexed hand or foot there.

Unfortunately, it took a while for the sense of meditative beauty to be established, as Satie Studs got off to a (literally) shaky start with self-conscious wobbling in the opening balance and pivot on demi pointe. Daniel Corthorn was, however, marvellous in the subsequent solo. Seeming to fill the space, his lines had such power, breadth, and elegance that you could almost see those undying piano chords inhabiting his body.

Oxana Panchenko in Clark's <i>To a Simple Rock'n'roll Song</i> © Prudence Upton
Oxana Panchenko in Clark's To a Simple Rock'n'roll Song
© Prudence Upton

As a piece that intends to tribute a composer, Satie Studs provides a case study in pairing music and movement. Satie’s compositions are characterised by a refined sense of phrasing and chord progression, a delicate tensing and release of dissonance and harmony, and (in the bar-less and time signature-less Ogives) a certain freedom of tempo. Parts of the dancing, though, suffered a flatness of phrasing that easily could have been remedied by greater awareness of Satie’s musical style. More troubling was the Ogives Composite section, when all four Ogives were played simultaneously while the full dance ensemble crowded the stage, creating a cacophony of sound and movement. Satie’s dissonance is both intentional and sophisticated, and to layer the Ogives and turn them all into dissonance effectively erases what makes Satie's music recognisably his. Whilst I would not usually place such importance on musical awareness in choreography, it becomes significant in a dance like this, where other production elements (such as costume, set, and story) are minimised, and the dance is intended as an homage to a composer.

Fast forward to the 1970s, with LAND, the second piece, set to punk numbers from Patti Smith’s iconic debut album Horses. The dancers were again in black and white, this time singlets and leather bell-bottoms, whilst an Atlas video installation flashed white numbers across a black wall. The overall sensation was of being in a rave, with the voluptuous sensuality of Smith’s lyrics creating, at times, an almost unbearable tension against the bristling precision of Clark’s choreography and the impassive faces of his dancers.

The evening concluded with my mother, my dog and CLOWNS!, Clark’s elegy to Bowie. The piece began, poignantly, with Bowie’s swansong Blackstar, then heightened to a celebratory ending with the improvised, liberated energy of Aladdin Sane. Clark has often spoken about how much Bowie meant to him, personally and artistically, and this piece showed how at home he is in Bowie’s work. The result was invigorating and full of spirit; both playful and rigorously athletic. The dancers, in metallic unitards that made them resemble liquid mercury and molten copper, pulsed and swirled across the stage whilst Bowie’s music splattered the air. It was the heady 80s all over again. And even though this time round Clark has shed the excess of his youthful brashness, his mature work remains punk spirit locked with balletic rigour – Clark at his best.