Robert Clark is an established performer, choroegrapher, collaborator and teacher who has worked across Europe and North America, he is also a Work Place artist at The Place. Robert’s new work Promises of Happiness is on tour this spring from Fri 13 Mar to Fri 29 May, and is in London at The Place on Fri 15 -Sat 16 May and Battersea Arts Centre on Fri 29 May.
I don't know what age I was, but I used to swing my head from side to side really fast when I was running, to blur my vision and because I believed it made me go faster. There's a ‘you've been framed’ moment in my head of a school sports day, when about halfway through the race I decided to switch on turbo power, and headed off into the crowd. That might have been the last time I did it.
My family's big on the arts so before I could talk I was already going to see various things, from quite purely dance work – Rosemary Butcher, stuff like that – all the way to pantomime and musicals. None of that was a choice, it was a social thing that we did – but I definitely had a moment where it was a choice to connect it to myself, and the production that comes to mind was Elsinore by Robert Lepage. It was something to do with the scale of it: it was a one-man show, but it was huge, and I think I found that impressive. Also it used projection, it was almost like a filmic experience, and that crossed a line for me. I was in my early teens and really interested in the idea of doing sound design or making music for film. So Elsinore – and some dance work by V-tol, a company that no longer exists, who also used projection – were useful in getting me thinking about dance or performance as something that might interest me.
There are loads! I admire people like Rosemary Butcher and Charles Linehan for never quite being fashionable but just getting on with it, and people like Igor and Moreno and their collective BLOOM! for being young and vibrant and bringing more energy back in. I admire so many people in the work they do, because I really like this art form, and I believe in it – that is, I believe in the people defining the art form as being something worthwhile.
I don't want to sound like a self-help book! Things like trusting yourself, trusting your instincts – all that stuff sounds dodgy out of context, or like a film, but actually can be right and feel really true at the time. More recently I've had a lot of advice around work-life balance, which I haven't managed to find yet. And Jonathan Burrows says a nice thing: that when the work's done for that day, it's done – so if one day it's four hours long and another day it's 10 hours long, that's fine. That's been useful for me. And then small practical things, like always take an extra pair of underpants – they're cliches, and embarrassing at the time, but useful.
I think the key thing is to get a clear understanding of yourself, not based around the measurements of training. I feel like training institutions, for all the really good work they do, are based around a system of marking that is more about training than the professional world. So I always say to people who are at that stage: work out, not within the training environment but within the professional environment, who you are, what you want and what you're good at, because it saves you a lot of headache. That's especially for dancers, but for choreographers it's similar. A lot of the advice I give at the moment is about knowing your references. Referencing is good, it's a strong way of working and it really speaks to an audience – but you have to know what you are referencing and how much of you is in it, because if it's all references and no you then you've got lost. It's about knowing yourself and where you're at with your work.
I'd like for people to be able to find the relationship between the work and themselves, that's a strong desire for me. It's not something outside of you, or about somewhere else: you should be able to find yourself in it. I don't want the event to finish when the lights stop and I would also really like it to start at some point prior to the lights going on: that's one I struggle with, because increasingly the only way to do that is via the computer or social media, which pulls me into a conflict with myself. I have a possibly nostalgic interest in the human, like a being-orientated version of human, human being rather than human doing.
If I could turn back time, I'd really like to go dancing with my grandmother. From what I can tell, she was an awful lot of fun when she was younger, and a very good ballroom dancer – which I've never tried – so I'd love to go out dancing with her.
In some ways those two things cross over for me. One of the things I'm really proud of in my development is the shift away from being trapped by an aesthetic of beauty, which in dance is still prevalent. But that's completely about embarrassment as well: I love finding ways of showing embarrassment or failure or ugly, whatever that means, on stage. I'm embarrassed about being shameful: when I get into a taxi and the driver asks me what I do, I just say theatre instead of dance. That's embarrassing. I should stand up for my art form more with people who aren't connected to it.
I dance all the time. Today I was dancing to Miles Davis, an impromptu duet with my son, and I do a lot of moving around for fun – silly dance, I like silly dancing. Depending on the circumstance, songs I used to love when I was a teenager will get me dancing – it's impossible not to move to the Michael Jackson Bad album, I've been dancing to that since I was nine. If it can connect with me from the past, I'll go for it.
It's all about who is it for: who is it actually for? All research starts with something that you're interested in or else you wouldn't research it, but there has to be a moment where you think about how other people might be interested in that. I had a good conversation with an artist called Brian Lobel about how he likes to make work for his grandma, because she has little faith in the arts to do stuff, so if she likes his work then he knows everyone will like it. I think that's a really beautiful notion, to make something for someone on a personal level that you know isn't really sure about art, but then also make sure it 100% meets your criteria for artistic rigour.
They're two sides of the same coin, really. I feel like I understand each better through the other – I know that's not the case for everybody, but it's necessary for me. Scheduling can be complicated, and prioritising becomes strange, there's a tension around it, because all choreographers or makers want their performers to be 100% committed, but the default position if you're making your own work is you give that priority. So it can be a bit of a mess, but so far it's worked for me. Getting out there and working with other people helps me understand the references I'm making, so yes, it's really connected. But I don't honestly always feel like I'm doing dance. As a performer, I often feel like I'm acting the part of a dancer, and as a maker I'm using some aspects of dance as one of a number of things. As a teacher it's the worst: if I'm in a class of people who are devoted to dance in its purest sense, I can feel a bit of a fraud.
EDge is set up like a rep company, bringing in four choreographers to work with a group of 12 post-graduate students, each of you working with them to make a 20-minute piece. It's a very different context to the one I'm usually in, but the challenges are similar: producing a piece that meets my standards, within the time, space, physical, emotional and financial realities that exist. I often ask the EDge dancers for things that are contrary to the work they have been asked to do while training, and sometimes I feel like a dream-breaker for them: people have been studying desperately hard putting their body through techniques, then I say that the technique is just a letter – you still need to be able to make a word, and put that word into a sentence, all the way out until you're actually saying something. But meeting people is the joy of working with an unknown group, and watching younger dancers grow and change, even in the short time-frame, is additionally rewarding.
Work Place makes community possible – a community with my peers. It gives me a break from everything being a competition for money and a competition for space, and lets me talk to people. I trust the other artists, which is really nice: I get feedback from them, they're interested in helping.
Robert Clark trained at Laban Centreas an undergraduate, and completed his training at London Contemporary Dance Schoolas part of the postgraduate dance companyEDge. He has danced extensively as a freelance performer and taught classes and workshops for degree-level students and professionals in Poland, Italy, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Greece, Sweden and England for various organisations. As a choreographer Robert has been supported by a number of organisations including The Place, Greenwich Dance, Arts Council England, Dance 4, Dance UK Trinity Laban.
To date his work has been performed in festivals and venues in London, Berlin, Venice, Budapest, Zagreb, Salzburg, Mulhouse, Oberwart, Ravena, Nottingham, Bouxwiller and Bassano. Recent commissions include works for the NOTTDANCE festival, Bodhi Project (the graduate company of SEAD), EDge(postgraduate company of London Contemporary Dance School),University of Bedfordshire,Dance 4’s graduate performance group and with pan-European Commission programme Beyond Front@ 2013/14.