Michael Clark Company blasts thru The Whitney Biennial

“cool”

“amazing!”

“did you see that guy’s ass?”

These were the conversation snippets I overheard as the audience filed out of Michael Clark Company’s WHO’S ZOO?, part of the Whitney Biennial 2012. Clocking in at 45 minutes, set to rock music, and packed with extremely physical movement performed by dancers sporting flame-colored unitards, this was a crowd-pleaser, and a decided contrast to Sarah Michelson’s meditative, minimalist Devotion Study #1–The American Dancer, which preceded Clark’s residency on the 4th floor of the Whitney building.

For Clark’s performance, the space was arranged as a dance floor spanning the width of the room, with the audience seated on the floor or standing in the front. Clark’s company came off a two-year residence at The Tate Modern, and from info available online, he has continued the idea of mixing untrained people with his professional dancers. For WHO’S ZOO?, three separate hordes of untrained performers (a total of 44 by my count) repeated a basic stepping pattern that slowly advanced across the stage during several sections of the work. Their function remained a mystery to me, as it wasn’t necessary to underscore the virtuosity of the dancers: the dancers more then held their own with the complex, virtuosic choreography, which even included double-split jumps. On the whole, the movement was largely linear, with a vocabulary rooted in ballet and clearly in debt to Cunningham, punctuated by a few pelvic and head rolls, and sprinkled liberally with crotch shots.

I was struck, however, by Charles Atlas’ projections and lighting, which are a time-based work of art in their own right. Atlas has been collaborating with Clark since 1984, and his contributions to WHO’S ZOO? add a layer of continuity and sophistication to the piece.

I appreciated that WHO’S ZOO? wasn’t something conceived by a choreographer for a visual art space under the auspices of post-modernism, and notions of what is supposed to happen in a museum versus a performance setting. This was if anything, a wholesale rejection of the rejection of performance conventions.

Michael Clark Company has been an Artistic Associate of the Barbican Centre in London since 2005 and primarily works in Britain, so without intending to sound like a redneck Republican (keep those foreigners out, they’re taking away opportunities from hard-working Americans!), I have a difficult time understanding why he was selected for this survey of contemporary American art. Clark earned a reputation as the enfant terrible of punk ballet in the mid-1980s and has cultivated a slew of connections in the visual art world, but little I saw here seemed distinctive or indicative of the furor he created 25 years ago–on either side of the pond.

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