King of punk dance has classic backbone

Michael Clark's hairstyle this season (he changes it each year) consists of four short spiked tufts of hair standing upright upon a shaven head. Performing to piercing, thumping, nonstop rock music, he has been described as the ``king of punk dance.'' Yet this young man, born in Edinburgh, is Europe's most popular avant-garde dancer and choreographer, a man whose choreography is in the repertoire of Rudolph Nureyev's Paris Opera, the Scottish Ballet, and two modern English companies: Extemporary Dance Theatre and the Mantis Dance Company.

Not only that, but he makes his United States debut at the British Festival in Minneapolis Oct. 3, and the London Festival Ballet has commissioned a new work for next spring. TV viewers in the US will be able to see him and his company early next year in a full-length television production, billed as a ``fantasy documentary,'' just completed for WGBH-TV in Boston and Channel 4 in England. And arrangements are being completed now for his New York debut in October 1986 at Brooklyn Academy of Music's ``Nex t Wave'' Festival.

Why is this young man all the rage? He choreographs for what he sees as the mood of the 1980s: restless, rebellious, explosively energetic, chopping and changing between short patterns, flashy sometimes to the point of vulgarity, often sexually explicit.

The five dancers in the show (Clark, Leslie Bryant, Matthew Hawkins, Julie Hood, and Ellen van Schuylenburch) threw themselves into continuous dancing that seemed at times like a cabaret review. After the intermission, charged with energy, they went on without a break for 45 minutes, perspiring freely, slipping in and out of different costumes on the run in a colorful patchwork of compulsive movements as the rock beat grew more and more insistent.

In his choreography, Clark pushes beyond the frontiers of traditional form, yet underlying the freedom and diversity of his work is a solid backbone of technique that stems from his own classical training (with the Royal Ballet). This gives him a foundation. This helps explain his appeal to companies such as the Paris Opera and the Royal Festival Ballet, and he has just become one of the youngest participants at the Edinburgh Festival. He followed Edinburgh with a London season at a huge warehouse -cum-theater on the banks of the Thames at Hammersmith, with every night sold out.

Four of the five dancers, including Clark himself, have formal ballet backgrounds. Clark turned out to be something of a rebel at the Royal Ballet School and joined the contemporary (but lyrical rather than nonconformist) Ballet Rambert at the age of 17.

He uses traditional steps, often reversing male and female roles (men do the whip-turn fouettes, women perform the grand jet'e leaps). Suddenly, everything on stage will halt while dancers switch to classical ballet warm-up exercises. These formal exercises are not confined to the stage: Clark insists his company do them daily in practice, too.

For all his bizarre abandon, Clark's originality lies in his never wholly severing the umbilical cord of his classic past. The typhoon of his creativity never completely uproots formalism and convention.

Meanwhile, the typhoon rushes on. Men dance in anything from flamenco heels to skin-tight boots, bare feet, and women's high-heels. Women sometimes dance in Army boots.

It is a shame that Clark feels he has to rely on vulgarity and sensationalism at times, for his choreography has much to say. Some of the moments based on classicism -- dancers suddenly forming a diagonal line to do basic balletic exercises, some sensitive partnering -- approached genuine beauty.

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