Mapping dancers' works and worlds

Scene from <i>Ocean</i>.
Scene from Ocean.

Charles Atlas has rendered the creative powers of dancers and choreographers in film, few more vividly than those of Michael Clark.

IN 1984, Charles Atlas made Hail The New Puritan, a film about dancer Michael Clark that is, he says,''more true than a documentary''. It's a fictional 24 hours in the life of Clark and his company, a subcultural portrait of choreography, clubbing, music, rehearsal, fashion, art, media and sex.

One of his cinematic models, Atlas adds, was A Hard Day's Night (''I stole one scene directly from it'').

Instead of ''explaining'' the work of Clark - a Royal Ballet School graduate who had just burst onto the London dance scene at the age of 21, with his own company - Atlas chose another route. ''I don't really think explanations of dance are that interesting or accurate,'' he says, on the phone from London, where he is working on the lighting for a current Clark show. ''I wanted to show the environment in which he created his work, his friends and the youth culture of the day.''

Hail the New Puritan is one of three Atlas features screening at this year's Melbourne Festival, part of an extensive program of films about art and its creators.

Atlas began his pioneering work with dance and video in the 1970s, collaborating with choreographer Merce Cunningham in combining the two. All the experience with Cunningham, he says, came into play for Hail the New Puritan, although in a very different way. ''But a lot of the same strategies of filming were the same. It's such a period piece, to me, although it's still quite lively.''

He had a lot of fun, he says, ''as an American in London'', scouting locations and working out the elements of Clark's world that he wanted to include in the film, including people such as Australian performance artist and style pioneer Leigh Bowery and musician Mark E. Smith from The Fall.

''Youth culture in London at the time was active and creative, despite the fact they had no money. And this is a pretty extreme group, they are all experimenting with how far they can push the limits,'' Atlas says.

He made the film for Channel 4, early in its history, at a time when the commission allowed him to follow his own inclinations. It was a rare opportunity, he says, ''a moment in time'', and he would never get the chance to make a film of that kind again. He did another film with Clark a few years later, ''and half the things we wanted to do, we weren't allowed to''.

The second Atlas work in the program, Turning, is a documentary record of a performance work on which Atlas collaborated with singer Antony (a Melbourne Festival guest this year). In the show, Atlas' video element, alongside Antony's songs, is a succession of projected ''live portraits'' of women who also appear on stage, revolving slowly on a turntable, incarnating and challenging images of gender, identity and beauty.

''There was something about the form,'' Atlas says, ''that just worked'', although there were elements of it that were ''pretty risky''.

Somehow, ''there was a kind of chemistry between the music and the women who were being portrayed''.

The revealing, often moving interviews that are part of Turning grew out of Antony's curiosity about the women in his show, and how they felt about what they were doing.

''And it was amazing how the intuitive casting of the girls for the songs turned out to be so appropriate,'' says Atlas.

The third film in the program is Ocean, Atlas' final collaboration with Cunningham, before the latter's death in 2009.

It presents a work performed three times over the course of a weekend in September 2008 in a Minnesota quarry with 150 musicians, an epic that was as difficult to film as it was to stage, and was also tricky to edit.

''Merce never saw the edit, but he watched while I was shooting, and he enjoyed it, especially the moving camera. It was the most challenging of all the films I have done with him,'' Atlas says.

''And I have done 40 Cunningham films, either collaborations or recordings. It was fitting it was the last.''

This story Mapping dancers' works and worlds first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.