to a simple, rock’n’roll … song

Michael Clark Company, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, January 30.

In the first part of Michael Clark’s gorgeous triptych of dances there’s an image of quiet, deep reverence enacted by two men, their hands spread and their heads bowed. It could stand for the whole work really, which pays homage to choreographers, musicians and artists who have inspired Clark.

Every molecule of to a simple, rock’n’roll … song is saturated with the spirit of contemporary dance’s great modernists, particularly Merce Cunnngham, while remaining absolutely rooted in the formal principles of classical dance. The pointe shoe even makes a brief appearance.

MichaelClarkCompany_SOH_creditPrudenceUpton_Sophie Cottrill, Harry Alexander, Rowan Parker, Oxana Panchenko, Kieran Page, Benjamin Warbis, Daniel Corthorn

Michael Clark Company. Photo: Prudence Upton

As the title suggests, music is the wellspring of to a simple, rock’n’roll … song and Clark’s taste is eclectic and impeccable. The title comes from Patti Smith’s three-part song Land, which throws rocket fuel on the witty, sexy, fast-moving middle section. It’s almost over before it starts – the whole evening gives less than an hour of dance – but it’s a blast.

Land is bathed in a version of American artist Charles Atlas’s video installation Painting by Numbers, which adds a trippy dimension to proceedings while also being supremely elegant. Atlas also designed the sumptuous lighting for the other sections, giving stage and dancers a ravishing glow.

Four David Bowie songs, starting with the title song from his final album, Blackstar, provide the soundtrack to the final enigmatic section. The eight dancers wear iridescent bodysuits and swirl like atoms or move robotically. The feel is otherworldly until the cheeky, finger-snapping ending.

Smith and Bowie are both indisputably rock’n’roll. What about Erik Satie (1866-1925)? You bet. He was a trailblazer whose early piano pieces, essentially big bunches of chords, preceded John Cage’s provocations by more than half a century and here accompany Clark’s fiendishly difficult choreography for the first section.

MichaelClarkCompany_SOH_creditPrudenceUpton_Daniel Corthorn

Daniel Corthorn in Land, the middle section of to a simple, rock’n’roll … song, danced against Charles Atlas’s Painting by Numbers. Photo: Prudence Upton

His opening statement is beyond austere, all long-held balances, slow turns and perilous extensions. The echoes of Frederick Ashton’s Monotones I and II, made to Satie’s Gnossiennes and Gymnopedies, are graceful in concept although some of the company struggled somewhat on opening night (jetlag?).

When they were on song they were wonderful and Daniel Corthorn’s solo in the first section and Oxana Panchenko’s in the third were testament to the truth that abstract dance can have powerful emotional force.

“How many times does an angel fall?” Bowie asked in Blackstar. Clark has done his fair share of tripping and getting up again over the years but he has always kept the faith, for which much thanks. I didn’t want the night to end.

The Sydney season ends on Sunday.  Perth Festival, February 14-17.

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