A Rock Star May Steal the Show
‘Who’s Zoo?’ by Michael Clark at the Whitney
By GIA KOURLAS
Published: April 6, 2012
It’s been a week since the premiere of the British choreographer Michael Clark’s new work at the Whitney Biennial, but that hasn’t been enough time to turn “Who’s Zoo?” into a dance of substance. Though changes have been made, it’s still a patchwork job in the style of Merce Cunningham — but it must be granted that Mr. Clark knows how to amp it up.
In the latest iteration of “Who’s Zoo?,” performed on Thursday afternoon at the Whitney Museum of American Art, with professionals alongside nondancers, the biggest improvement is live music: Relaxed Muscle, a two-member band featuring Jarvis Cocker (of Pulp) and Jason Buckle, perform four of the show’s six songs.
With the addition of live music and a cult-of-personality approach — not only by the spectacularly louche Mr. Cocker, but also by Mr. Clark, who has given himself more cameos this time around — “Who’s Zoo?” is less of a dance than it ever was. Mr. Clark transforms it into a musical experience with movement.
As a result, the six members of his company look more and more like backup dancers. Though the section is not new, the most poignant dance moment occurs when Mr. Clark inserts something like a flash mob in the middle of “Who’s Zoo?” For the work’s large contingent of amateur dancers, all wearing black, the simple, repetitive choreography set to Pulp’s “F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E.” includes a fist to the chest, an arm pointed straight ahead and down toward the floor and, finally, both hands behind the back.
Charles Atlas, credited with the lighting, has added more projections that spell out some of the lyrics of “F.E.E.L.I.N.G.,” but reverses the letters to create a moving jumble against the back wall. It’s a little trippy; in a flash, the dancer Julie Cunningham swipes a question mark away.
As the piece progresses, Mr. Clark insinuates himself more forcibly: at one point, he wields a cane, thrusting it against a curtain that borders a side window of the Whitney’s wide fourth-floor setting. But try as he might, Mr. Clark, bounding up and down the expanse of the stage like a hyperactive ringmaster, can’t begin to compete with the charisma of Mr. Cocker. (Really, the only person in the room who stood a chance was a low-key David Bowie, in the audience.)
Mr. Cocker, in costume as his alter ego, Darren Spooner, has his face and hands blackened and wears a painted brown leather jacket, skeleton shirt and jeans, under which pointy red boots poke out. Aside from his voice, it is his dancing that draws you in: Mr. Cocker, a natural mover whose rhythm is bewilderingly lackadaisical yet full of darting undercurrents, performs slinky steps that stutter backward and forward while singing the Relaxed Muscle songs “The Heavy,” “Let It Ride,” “Beastmaster” and, as an encore, “B-Real.” (The set list is subject to change.)
Like a mad Easter Bunny, he passed out candy and chocolates to puzzled, elderly audience members in the first row. Yes, thanks to Mr. Cocker, it was a weird afternoon. In this case, the music was the dance.