After 30 years working with choreography, Claxton brought dance to public spaces and conquered the vast audience that enjoys contemporary dance but never goes to the theatre. She tells me with excitement, “I have been bashing that glass ceiling for years, a lot of people do. But I have shattered the ceiling with POP-UP Duets (fragments of love). The world is ready for love. We need it. The world is a mess.”
Having danced in public spaces while I was a professional dancer, I understand the difficulties of working with reluctant audiences, but I absolutely love unexpected performance encounters. It’s what led Claxton to take dance into open spaces. She confesses that she is a profoundly kinaesthetic learner and feels that sitting on our bums in the theatre makes it challenging to experience dance. She adds: “Contemporary dance is a hard sell unless you are one of the big names. I wanted to bring high-quality contemporary dance to public spaces and big audiences.”
The big cats of contemporary dance in the U.K. are still mostly male. When Claxton was re-staging POP-UP Duets, she auditioned a lot of male dancers -noticing that for every ten jobs listed on their application, eight were with male choreographers. Female choreographers are still hidden mainly in small-scale tours, but Claxton became a rare exception to the rule, choreographing POP-UP Duets which has been viewed by over 10,000 people (plus a further 80,000 online). We can’t ignore the success and outreach that contemporary dance can have outside mainstream theatres.
POP-UP Duets is a highly skilled and intricate collection of duets choreographed for public spaces. Claxton tells me, “We did a lot of research in open spaces. The dance that emerges out of public situations is not a flash mob. It arises from the idea of love, and it’s subtle; the interaction of a couple is not necessarily romantic. They are open to interpretation: two people were having a conversation, some touch, others hug, and it evolves into a dance. It’s quite subversive.”
Most love duets are violent and dramatic; the woman gets thrown around. Claxton created a non-abusive and non-violent dance piece. There is dramatic love, but in the baseline of POP-UP Duets, there is care and tenderness between the couple, “Because the world needs it”, she reiterates vigorously.
Claxton is determined to remove violence out of dance. She says, “Too many years of seeing the same things on stage. The woman being pulled around with no agency. As a prominent practitioner of Contact Improvisation, I am a big fan of how you can shift weight between two people.”
Alas, the era needs to come to an end. We need to stop seeing men throwing women around the floor, lifting them up in the air and robbing them of the agency to be powerful and complicit in the sharing of weight. She goes further, “If you think a woman with muscles is masculine, that is your problem. In China I get women to do push-ups, building their muscles; loads of women are happy to help, lift, and support a man. I am interested in empowerment, not to prove that we can do what a man does, but instead, to demonstrate that we can be a partner rather than a subject.”
Traditionally, partnering has been imbalanced. Men often don’t get to dance, just get to lift which is disempowering for themselves. There’s a significant trend in contemporary dance where the man supports the woman. Conventionally all love duets are between man and women, but Claxton is interested in breaking the heteronomy of stereotypes, presenting same-sex and heterosexual couplings. She admits to being proud of the audience’s reaction to POP-UP Duets. “We had people with their kids, looking into a romantic duet excitingly whether or not the couple were same or opposite sexes. I was proud of Scotland. We have done really well in Taiwan as well. More equality in the partnership.”
I have followed POP-UP Duets online since its premiere in Edinburgh in 2016, and what has captured my interest since, is how gesture evolves into a more embellished movement that turns into expanded choreography. It looks human and not abstract; it’s relatable, uncomplicated but impressive. The dancers look like they are merely supporting one another with dance. Picture a couple in love; becoming available to each other to hold hands, to be gentle and pleasant with one another but creating intricate partner work, lifting each other effortlessly of the floor in a continuous love story in the public eye.
Claxton proposes a framework where the performance arises from a park or museum bench, in this situation the public can become both accidental audiences, as well as unintentional extra-performers. She confesses, “They always have a choice to leave. I don’t like to force audience participation.”
Claxton works primarily with her own company Janis Claxton Dance, which affords her the necessary time to create work. The deadlines for creation are more extended than a typical repertoire company. She trains her dancers, in her own systems, often working the same dancers for many years. She is overwhelmed with joy to share the results of her commitment and belief in a training based methodology, and take POP-UP Duets on a world tour including to SIFA (Singapore International Festival of the Arts) and Jacobs Pillow Dance Festival. One dream is to work with a ballet company.
Congratulations to all the winners of the Creative Edinburgh Awards 2016 especially Janis Claxton and Pippa Murphy who won the Collaboration Award. Here again is Loop's film on their Pop-Up Duets, filmed earlier in the year. Music performed by 2015 The SAY Award winner Kathryn Joseph.
Posted by BBC Loop on Monday, 8 August 2016