I just came across these pop-up duets by Scottish choreographer Janis Claxton. This is the kind of work I would love to see appearing on the streets of Alameda Point at Animate Dance Festival!
Janis Claxton, Fragments of Love
Tuesday, 27 June 2017
As I work towards re-creating 2+1 in my new home-town, I came across these notes about the process of creating the piece and what it means to me as an artist/ mother. The questions were sent to me by Donald Hutera, dance writer for The Times newspaper in the UK, for an article which never quite got written. Re-reading them I thought the answers might be of interest. Here they are, un-edited and un-polished, for those of you who have the time/ inclination to read them!
1. It was becoming a parent that prompted you to make this piece, yes? I'm sure there's lots to be said about that. How has motherhood changed you as a person and as an artist?
I’ve always been slightly terrified by the word ‘artist’ plagued by a sense that I’m far too sane, middle class and ordinary to consider myself an artist. I felt like my life lacked the traumatic experiences that shape the work of so many artists. Having my first child was my first great trauma – not so much in the tragic, massive-natural-disaster sense, but more in the from-this-point-forward-life-never-be-the-same kind of a sense. Not only was it a momentous event in my life, but it was one I shared with a large percentage of the population. It occurred to me that it was not only full of dramatic potential, but also ‘relevant’ and therefore hopefully interesting to a huge number of people.
As a dancer the one resource we are usually very rich in is time. Time to spend 5 hours working for every hour we pay ourselves/get paid. Time to look after our bodies, to think, read, watch dance. I doubt that anyone really anticipates how much time having children takes, I certainly didn’t. This has had both positive and negative effects on my career. Time has become more precious which helps to focus the mind and to appreciate the luxury of creating/ dancing. However it is surprisingly easy to feel yourself slipping out of the world of Dance. As a parent I find it hard to get to class, to the theatre, to socialize with other dancers and I am surrounded by other mothers. When your time is all your own easy to be judgemental about how you should spend it and what is important. When suddenly 24 hours a day are accounted for and any time spent doing other than “being a mother” has to be paid for, your priorities go through a real paradigm shift. When I was younger and dancing with every hour of the day I never felt the need to justify it because the enjoyment/ appreciation etc was always drip-feeding in. Now I have started to question much more the value of dance, the part it has to play in society and in people’s lives. I think pre-kids I was quite arrogant about having chosen to work as an artist, patronizing about people who sat in front of the TV and got ‘lost’ in a mindless daily routine. After a day looking after the kids Masterchef on the sofa is about all I feel I’m good for and family life can be so all-encompassing that it’s quite difficult to connect with what life felt like pre-kids. That said – ‘parenthood’ is an ever changing state. 2+1 deals very specifically with the twilight zone of the very early months – sleepless/ joyful/ reeling from the shock of it all. I had to work really hard towards the end of the creation period to think back, because my daily reality by that stage was two kids, one of whom can make pretty fluent and simulating conversation! I have a feeling that if I can hang on and keep working through these first few years then time might slowly start to become less of a rare commodity, and hopefully work can once again move up a gear!
2. How'd you put it together, and how did you work with what collaborators (incl fellow stage parent Amir Giles!) in terms of creating it?
I had some pretty clear ideas before we started about sections that I wanted to exist, and the washing machine was always going to be central – because it seemed to have taken over my life. During the initial R&D period, I was 7 months pregnant with my 2nd child, so I wasn’t dancing. I invited Vanessa Cook to join us, partly because I think she’s a wonderful, mature dancer / performer but also because she had just had her first child, so she was pretty well living the piece as we made it. At the end of the R&D we had 5 short scenes – each one reflected a very specific experience of my experience of parenthood. We also worked from the start with dramaturg Lu Kemp who was one of those incredibly helpful behind the scenes people. One of those people that when you try to specify exactly what she did you can’t quite put your finger on it, but you know that you couldn’t have done it without her! Amir and I have worked together for about 10 years both as contemporary dancers on various projects and as tango partners. He is an incredibly generous performer and a talented choreographer in his own right, so working with him is very fluid. He also puts up with no bullshit and is quite good at pushing me when I’m pfaffing or putting off dealing with a problem… those moments can be a lot less “fluid” but undoubtedly very constructive!
3. I'd like to know more about the set and the content as related to props: bottle assembly, soap bubbles, rope and laundry...
Given that the piece is all about a baby which we never see – the props play a vital role in portraying the presence of the baby. Finding props was pretty simple, the first six months of a babies life is basically a constant stream of milk (bottles, the breastpump almost featured but got dropped), sleep deprivation, washing clothes and nappies (again we played with – but they failed to make the cut)
I love that the stream of clothes is endless – there are more clothes on stage than we have in the wardrobes of my family of four! There’s something in the excess that gives a sense of how daunting parenting can seem at the beginning. I remember going through some really tough moments at the beginning because I really couldn’t see how in all of this “new world” of baby I was ever going to get back some of life as I knew it and let alone be able to continue dancing.
The bowl scene is a very poignant one for me because I had a very specific image in my head. My daughter was born tiny, and she would go blue with cold as soon as you started to take her clothes off so bathing her was a real challenge. One of us would have a hot shower in the bathroom to raise the temperature in the room and then we would try and get her in and out as quick as possible, but even holding something that tiny and frail in water was terrifying. I tried to think of some physical action that would portray the intensity, nerves and sense of collaboration that my husband and I shared at bath-time. I had the idea of 2 people carrying a bowl of water without using their hands. I used to love watching hypnotised as Amir and Vanessa did that section…. It’s not quite as enjoyable now I have to do it myself – very unforgiving!
The bubbles are less obviously symbolic for me. I came across a guy doing giant bubbles in the street one day and decided it had to be in the piece. I love the level of uncertainty it gives to the performance, it somehow really shrinks the gap between performers and audience because neither of us really has a clue how the bubbles are going to turn out (depends more on heat/humidity than anything else as far as I can tell) and we are all equally captivated by the beauty of the bubbles.
4. Could you say something about baby talk and sounds - where that came from, and what it means to you in terms of the piece?
We found it was a really fine line in terms of sound. We started by using a lot of baby cries to tell the story, but it felt limiting and we made a decision early on that you would never actually hear “the baby”. There are two moments when we do use baby sounds, but in a slightly different way.
Firstly the so-called Goo-goo-ga-ga section when Amir and I are supposedly entertaining the baby but have basically tripped a switch and started acting like babies ourselves. This was quite a late addition to the piece but I think it plays a key role. One of the great thing about having children is that it gives you an excuse to be childlike- there’s nothing I enjoy more than being forced to sit down and do colouring in with my daughter! But we also play with the line between consciously playing ‘baby’ and completely losing it and going loopy.... little people can drive you pretty round the bend.
Throughout the bubbles you can hear the voice of a baby accompanied by a piano composition. The voice is my 1 year old son playing with some lego. When I heard the recording I was amazed at the musicality of it. We used it a lot for improvisations and I finally showed it to Giles Thomas (the composer), who was as enthused as I was (until then I wasn’t sure if it was just me gushing over my beautiful son!) He composed the music around the ‘notes’ of Max’s voice, which gives it a very unusual structure and somehow works with the unpredictability of the bubbles and the fascination they invoke.
5. What have you learnt from making 2 + 1, and how has its creation - and the performance of it - changed you?
What was lovely about making 2+1 was having such a clear idea of the emotional journey that I wanted to depict. It is the first time I have made a piece with such a clear dramatic line and I think it has helped me to make something that I imagine I’d like to see rather than just something that I like to dance. Working with the incredibly talented team of set/costume/sound/designers and with Lu (Dramaturg) was such a luxury. Their input moulded mine, and more than anything I think their apparent confidence in me gave me a new level of confidence in myself.
6. I think when we met your children had not yet seen it. Am I right about that? If so, why not and if not, when...?
You’re right, they still haven’t. At the start of the run I was determined not to let them, more than anything because I didn’t trust myself as a performer and a mother. It’s one thing remaining focused through a load of unknown children doing their random running commentary, but to try and stay concentrated with my own children calling me from beside the stage I fear might be beyond me. My youngest is not yet 2, and I still wouldn’t let him come because he cannot conceive of a valid reason why Mummy wouldn’t come when he calls and might well have a not-so-quiet fit if he felt he didn’t have my full attention. My eldest is 3 and a half, and I actually relented and said that she could come and see the last performance. She was the one who decided she had better things to be doing! In September we will be doing a trial run of the new schools project in her school though so not only will she be watching, her entire class will be there…that could be quite a test!
7. I read the bio and career history on website but was just wondering if there were to be a few things that a prospective reader might find most interesting or useful to know about you or your work, what would those things be?
I suppose the most unusual thing about my career is that I never really completed formal dance training, I did one year at Laban, but then left to do a four year degree in Chinese studies at Oxford. I learnt what I could doing work-study programs in my hoildays, and all kinds of workshops in my early years in Paris and in many ways when I go to teach at schools like Rambert now, though I envy them the opportunities they have, I do think there is something in having had to seek it out for myself. Feeling desperate to catch up has helped me never to take things for granted and to be open to all kinds of different influences.
8. If 2 + 1 had a smell or smells, what would it/they be? What are its textures? What might it taste like?
Smells and taste – washing detergent! Chocolate/wine (or the dream of them), the heavenly smell of babies!
Textures – bumpy, light as air with a lead lining (makes perfect sense to me !)
9. Feel free to add anything else you might deem important that I've not addressed above! TA!
Over and out!