Cosmic Dancer: Scotland's dance trailblazer Michael Clark honoured in new V&A Dundee exhibition

He is Scotland's “punk ballet” trailblazer who has been renowed as the bad boy of the dance world for decades.

Now the celebrated dancer and choreographer Michael Clark is being honoured with the first major exhibition devoted to his groundbreaking career and a back catalogue of work spanning four decades.

His cutting-edge collaborations, which saw him work across multiple art forms ,have been brought together under the one roof at V&A Dundee, for a celebration of the Aberdonian it has hailed as “the David Bowie of dance.”

Its new show – which is said to be one of the biggest exhibitions of all-time honouring a dance choreographer – explores how Clark combined classical ballet training with the worlds of punk, fashion and nightclubbing to burst into the British dance scene in the 1980s, when he launched his own company at the age of just 22.

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    It is hoped the exhibition, which opens on Saturday, will bring new audiences to the work of Clark, with V&A Dundee director Leonie Bell describing him as one of Scotland’s “greatest creative visionaries.”

    The Cosmic Dancer exhibition will explore how Clark, who turns 60 this year, has drawn inspiration from musical influences as varied as David Bowie, Patti Smith, Jarvis Cocker, T Rex and Igor Stravinsky.

    It recalls his collaborations with the filmmakers Peter Greenaway and Derek Jarman, fashion designers Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen, musicians from the bands Scritti Politti, The Fall and Wire, and performance artist Leigh Bowery.

    Films, sculptures, paintings, costumes and photographs all feature in the multi-room exhibition – created with the Barbican arts centre in London – which will run at V&A Dundee until September. Clark’s career is charted in a room full of posters, programmes, flyers and other promotional material, displayed in chronological order, while the exhibition features a number of archive interviews with the dancer and choreographer.

    Ms Bell said: “I like to think of Michael Clark as the David Bowie of dance.

    "He cracked open the egg of dance, especially ballet, and was an incredible collaborator with fashion designers, performance artists, musicians and bands. The exhibition is full of life, energy and beautiful humanity.

    “He just blew apart everything that was understood about dance in the 1980s and 1990s. He had an anarchy and the energy of a young guy who was trying to make sense of the world, and what he and his friends were experiencing at the time, through dance.

    “He became a bit more gentle in the 20 years that followed, but collaboration was always at the heart of his work.

    Dance student Emma Smith gets a preview of the Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer exhibition at V&A Dundee. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

    “He was alive to influences everywhere, and tried to reflect and refract in the amazing performances he created.“One of the things that made him unique was that he was able to combine contemporary influences and energy with some of the most rigorous classical ballet.

    The exhibition recalls how Clark began Scottish traditional dance classes when he was four, won a place at the Royal Ballet School in London when he was 13, staged the first concert of his own and formed his own dance company in 1984, by which time he had made 16 original dance pieces.

    Ms Bell added: "To me, Michael Clark is one of the greatest creative visionaries that Scotland has ever produced.

    “I really hope that by putting on this exhibition quite close to where he was born that we bring his audiences and fans here, but also that we open up new audiences to the magical world of Michael Clark.

    V&A Dundee's Michael Clark exhibition Cosmic Dancer runs from 5 March till 4 September.

    “There’s some brilliant footage in the exhibition of Michael Clark at the Edinburgh International Festival in the 1980s.

    “There was such a divide in the audience. Some people called his show an atrocity but others said it was the best thing they’d ever seen.

    "It will be really interesting to see how our audiences who were born in the 1990s and 2000s respond to the exhibition who are maybe not familiar with his work. The exhibition just feels so relevant and like a contemporary show even though it starts in the mid-eighties.”

    Highlights of Cosmic Dancer include a multi-screen collage of dance and music, some of the late Bowery’s flamboyant and provocative costumes from his collaborations with Clark, his memorable “dinosaur” costume, and stage props from a show he created with The Fall, I Am Curious Orange, a post-punk satire on sectarianism, which was created to commemorate the 300th anniversary of William of Orange’s coronation.

    Specially-created installations for the exhibition include a room featuring a sculpture of Clark’s body sitting on a toilet, created by artist Sarah Lucas.

    Also featured are intimate portraits of Clark by photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, a painting by Peter Doig, one of Scotland’s most successful modern-day artists, filmmaker Duncan Campbell’s Turner Prize-winning collaboration with Clark, and artist Silke Otto-Knapp’s paintings.

    Michael Clark captured during the filming of Charles Atlas's 1986 film Hail the New Puritan.

    Florence Ostende, curator at the Barbican, where an earlier version of the exhibition was briefly staged in 2020, said: “Michael was very involved in the conceptual planning for the exhibition, thinking about what the vision for the show would be.

    “We looked a lot at other dance exhibitions that had been staged and he was very generous in allowing us to have a deep-dive into his company’s archives.

    “Michael Clark completely redefined the cultural landscape in Britain. He never thought of his work as just being for the dance world and he saw his company of dancers as being like a rock band, with friendship and community at its core.

    “He was always thinking about a much broader audience –he had an audacity, creativity and radical vision that meant his work was very accessible to people who had not never been to a dance performance or never heard of him before.

    “I hope the exhibition will appeal to people who have known Michael’s work for decades, but also a younger audience who will recognise his incredible creative input.”

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    V&A Dundee security guard Darren Rout stands alongside artist Sarah Lucas's cast of dance and choreographer Michael Clark's body. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire
    V&A Dundee visitor assistant Rachel Corr stands in the set created for Michael Clark's Edinburgh International Festival show 'I Am Curious, Orange'. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire
    Dance student Andi Brogan gets an early look at the new V&A Dundee exhibition, Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire