The Cosmic Dancer Needs Grounding

Michael Clark and Ellen van Schuylenburch intertwined in striped Bodymap cosmic costume in a publicity shoot for “Do you me? I did,” 1984. Photograph by Richard Haughton.

Though an expansive visual showcase of Michael Clark’s work, Cosmic Dancer misses the mark in its ability to visualize the weight of his performance.

Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer enjoyed a briefly reopened stint as London took an ill-advised foray out of lockdown.


A headliner at the Barbican since October 7, the exhibition explores the selected work of the Michael Clark Company, and the life of Clark himself, who upon leaving the Royal Ballet in 1979, joined the Ballet Rambert where, in combination to his participation in a Merce Cunningham summer class, he discovered new narrative possibilities outside of the confines of traditional ballet.


The ground floor is a visual overload, plain and simple. My viewing partner asked multiple times to leave the section as it was headache inducing. I agreed. But perhaps this was the point; to reflect the cacophonous nature of British culture at the time, stuck between the AIDS crisis and Thatcher’s conservative Britain. The bombardment of Charles Atlas films seems appropriate upon reflection, and apt for today, though not prescient. 


The collaborative spirit of the time is effectively nullified by the walls separating an upper section into harsh cubicles. Though this is a relief after witnessing a visual array of lights, sounds, and occasional flash of Leigh Bowery’s bum (no complaints here), the puritanical nature of the upper floor lies in contrast to the reality of Clarks collaborative life and career. Les Child, dancer, choreographer and collaborator of Michael Clark, Bodymap, and countless others, noted in an interview speaking on Bodymap, “It was liberation, freedom, expression of everything, how they lived their lives, transferred on stage. It was inspiring and it was a genuine freedom of creativity. I don’t know how else to explain it. And of course, Michael picked up on that as well.”


Though Bodymap closed in the early 90s, Stevie Stewart continued collaborating with the Michael Clark Company on numerous performances including “I am curious orange” (1988) and “I do” (2007), retaining a spirit of joy through considered costuming, made more mature by the passage of time. Bodymap and Stewart are unfortunately underrepresented in the exhibition, despite a long relationship with the Michael Clark Company; the absence of a palpable number of physical garments distances the viewer from the intense physicality and delicacy of their designs, making abstract a beauty in performance intensely vested in the understanding of fashion in motion.


A cancellation of scheduled performances also drew the life from the exhibition, which at times feels more like a memorial. Certainly not for Clark, who, aged 58, is still performing, but for a cultural confluence of desire, drive, and daring no longer afoot.

Read more on Bodymap here.