Gary Clarke: An interview

PS Ferns
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Winner of the 1998 Brian Glover Memorial Award, Gary Clarke is regarded as one of the UK’s leading contemporary dance artists and has received great appreciation for his work as a choreographer, director, performer, mentor, teacher and facilitator. He has developed a growing reputation for creating extraordinary dance work of various sizes and scales, which has received praise from critics, audiences, producers, national dance agencies and venues in the UK and abroad. It was my absolute pleasure to interview Gary Clarke ahead of his UK tour Coal.

You are about to go on tour with your new work Coal Can you tell us a little about the piece?

Coal is my new dance theatre show produced for mid-scale theatres. The piece is a direct response to my harsh upbringing in the working class mining village of Grimethorpe. It’s to mark the 30th anniversary of the 1984-5 British miner’s strike.

Coal explores the darker underbelly of the mining industry and the body-wrecking demands of an industry now almost forgotten. It tackles issues of community, solidarity and survival. The show has a cast of seven professional dancers, a live brass band and a community cast of women, plus a large design team.

What first drew you to the harsh reality of life in the coalmines, enough for you to create Coal?

A lot of my family used to work at the coalface, so as a child it surrounded me. However, as a young gay artist I rejected it. I pushed it away and would focus on other things.

Then, one day in 2009 I decided that I needed to understand my history, my roots and the people and place where I am from. I looked back and unearthed the stories and realities of what made the fabric of our working class society. It was a huge revelation for me and I learnt a lot. I can now really appreciate and respect my heritage.

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You mentioned ‘body wrecking demands’. What are they?

I drew a parallel between the physical demands of coal mining and dance. They both involve a high level of physicality and rely on the body to get the job done.

I watched miners work and I could clearly see choreography drawn from what they were doing. I was interested to see if I could push physicality to extremes and draw out a physical language of dance that would communicate as hard labour.

It was important for me that the body had to look like it was in a state of work rather than dance, and to try to put an audience in the centre of the coalmines and give them a real feel of what the underworld felt like.

Coal mining is exhausting, backbreaking work in some of the most dangerous and horrific conditions and I wanted to frame this in dance and put it in front of an audience. If anything, it should act as a piece of education rather than a dance show.

How did you audition and choose the dancers for the piece and did you have a specific type of dancer in mind?

I always knew I wanted to work with an all-male ensemble. Due to the nature of the work, I was looking for dancers who wanted to work hard. They ultimately had to be excited about the idea and want to push their physicality to its extreme.

It was also important that they looked like so-called ‘real men’ and not dancers. They had to have a strong physical build with a strong torso and built-up arms. Because of the nature of the work, they also had to have emotion, carry a sense of humanity, show dignity, have a sense of humour and enjoy a pint.

I wanted the dancers to really experience life as a coal miner and not just dance in the work so they had to be up for changing and growing with this idea. I did an open call and had over 300 men from all over the world apply.

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I held two auditions, and from these auditions, I found five wonderful, strong, open and truly remarkable animals. As well as the men, there are two female performers who play the role of ‘The Miner’s Wife’ and Thatcher. My long-term dancers who I trust immensely play these two.

For the piece, what kind of research and process did you undertake?

Because I am from a mining village, a lot of my research was on my doorstep. My research was endless and enlightening. It was important that the cast of the show was also involved in this research so that each dancer could truly understand the people and communities at the heart of the piece.

I held meetings that I called ‘the road shows’, where we went to coal mining villages and spoke to numerous ex-miners and their wives about the job and lifestyle.

We visited the National Coal Mining Museum of England and accessed their resources. I personally went underground at Caphouse Colliery in Wakefield to experience what it was like first-hand.

I interviewed Anne Scargill, the ex-wife of former NUM leader Arthur Scargill, and friend Betty Cooke, who established the Women Against Pit Closures movement (WAPC) in 1984.

I accessed the archive at the National Union of Mineworkers‘ headquarters in Barnsley. I spoke to historian and author Brian Elliott about his findings. I read lots of books and watched numerous documentaries and films about the industry.

Then I had to condense all the research into areas of interest and discard anything that I felt was not relevant to what I wanted to explore in the work.

How has this project compared with past works?

Coal is my most ambitious project to date. Made for the mid-scale, it has a cast of 16 onstage with a creative team of 10, so it’s on a much bigger scale. It is more ambitious in its message, as well.

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I want this work to make impact. To change the dance industry as we know it. The work is very working class which, in a contemporary dance setting, is something new. The work is richer and more multi-layered than my other works and is clearer in its ambition.

It is the first time I have worked with live music, which is exciting, and to work with the Carlton Main Frickley Colliery Band is just amazing.

This piece is about life or an aspect of life. How does creating dance about life compare with creating about art?

The two require very different approaches. When you deal with real life in work, I believe you have a duty to portray it well. The work has to be able to communicate effectively.

It is important that the facts are right and that you are clear with the message, the subject and the ideas you are exploring. You are much more on the inside of it, living it as you would normal life.

Work about life is more immediate, more complex and more relevant to people. Generally, the issues are universal.

Making work as a response to art is a less demanding thing because the message has already translated into art and what I would do would then interrogate that. You are freer to play, explore, and interpret. There is more room for things to shift and change conceptually and artistically.

Do you prefer to choreograph about art or life?

100% life. I believe I have a duty as a dance-maker to use my artform as a vessel for communication, to try and frame the world and its complexities.

How would you describe yourself as an artist/choreographer/creator? 

Erratic, emotional, visual, visceral, structured, detailed, controlling, direct, honest, clear, unclear, political, ambitious, brave, bold, insecure, confident, instinctive, irrational, bossy, annoying and very very loving.

For more information on Gary Clarke and his dance company, including tour dates for Coal please visit




About PS Ferns

Author of the YA Fantasy series 'The Element Order' Choreographer and Artistic director of dance company 'The House of Cards' Artistic Director and Principle of Akademix dance company and academy