Janis Claxton – shining a light on female choreography

Based in Edinburgh and touring internationally, Janis Claxton Dance is a multi-award winning company with a reputation for bringing high quality works to new and diverse audiences including large-scale performances in Scotland’s National Museums and Galleries, Edinburgh Zoo and Edinburgh International Science Festival. The company’s latest and highly acclaimed work POP-UP Duets (fragments of love), was presented at National Museum of Scotland as part of the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe and Made in Scotland Showcase. It will soon visit Jacob’s Pillow.

Known for her diverse and unique works and her abilities to craft exquisite material with world-class dancers, Janis has worked as a choreographer, teacher and movement director internationally including for; Scottish Opera, Dantzaz, National Theatre of Scotland, Kaohsiung Spring Arts Festival, Beijing Dance/LDTX, National Dance Company of Wales, Beijing Dance Festival, Edinburgh International Science Festival, National Museum of Scotland, Beijing Dance Academy, UK NOW Festival China, World Expo Shanghai, Back to Back & Lung Ha Theater Companies, Sichuan Peoples Art Theatre, and many more.

Have you always wanted to be involved in the stage?

Yes. I began dancing as soon as I was accepted into ballet class which was my 3rd birthday. And I started ‘making up dances’ for family and friends to watch and perform at weekend barbeques ever since I can remember.

Where did you train, and what was it like?

Well that is an interesting question as I am always training and training is so multi-faceted, however I first trained at a suburban dance school in Brisbane studying ballet, jazz and tap dance, and went onto Queensland University of Technology to do a BA in Contemporary Dance. That was 1979 and I remember creating my first works (one to Patti Smith and one to Laurie Anderson). They didn’t go down well with the staff and I was marched up to the office of the Dean and told “you have to put at least one arabesque and two pirouettes in your next choreography or you will fail dance composition”. WOW! I was shocked. So I made a really boring work and got a Grade C! I continued to make work to Patti & Laurie of course!

After dance school I moved to Sydney and trained under the amazing Paul Saliba at Sydney Dance Company Studios and the wildness life itself (it was the early 80s) became my ‘training’. I then followed my passion to study Chinese Kung Fu in Chinatown Sydney, Japanese Butoh Dance in Tokyo and with Erick Hawkins in New York. I have also studied Alexander Technique and contact Improvisation for over 20 years, and a passion for non-human animal gestures led me into intensive studies of chimpanzees and other apes. Training is forever.

Describe a day in your life now.

My days really vary – juggling admin (lots and lots!), rehearsing dancers, teaching and working out at the gym. There is not much rest for a freelance choreographer as we are always preparing for the next cycle and often on the hustle for grants, work, commissions etc.

What has been the defining moment of your career?

There have been several including;

Erick Hawkins asking me to join his company in New York in 1992, being invited to present POP-UP DUETS at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in 2017.

What has been the most challenging?

Without a doubt the most challenging aspect of my entire career has been getting recognition with the limitations of wearing a female body! It is REALLY, REALLY, REALLY difficult for female choreographers – for women in dance in general.

What’s the most rewarding thing about dance in general?

The pleasure – for sure – it is the pleasure that I feel and that I am able to share with others either as participants or audiences. Sharing pleasure. I love that!

What’s the worst thing?

The uncertainty of work, survival and the ability to pay bills. Always questioning in the hollow times.

Do you have any pre-show rituals, either if you’re performing or watching your own creations?

Performing – ooooh I am so glad I no longer do it as I really did get so nervous and no ritual helped. Watching my own work – probably a mild to strong sense of panic overwhelms me as I try to relax. Not much works until the dancers start and then I usually enjoy the work (and take notes!)

Who or what inspired you to create POP-UP DUETS?

Bringing high quality dance to public spaces

Reaching large audiences from a widely diverse demographic. I have a long-term interest in bringing high quality dance to public spaces and new audiences. From my experience with creating several works for Public Spaces (Enclosure Humans, Chaos & Contingency and POP-UP Duets) I have learned that there is a huge audience of contemporary dance lovers but most of them do not yet know they are fans! Sharing love and a kind of movement material that everyday people can relate to (not just typical dance audiences).

Smashing the hetero–normative habit of duets that pervade in all partner dance forms

Re-evaluating how we view women in the duet form; many duets in contemporary and ballet dance are really imbalanced in terms of gender and power. I wanted to show dance that was empowering for both partners and required agency from BOTH dancers to execute. Many duets (still!) have a macho man whirling a disempowered female around like a limp rag doll. It makes me ill. I wanted to show equality – even if the male or larger person does more lifting, there is a sharing of weight, power and love. People engage in viewing dance in different ways and many people need to move around, scan the whole space, wiggle and fidget in order to receive information. In this way POP-UP Duets allows people to receive the dance in a way that is perhaps more conducive to their own feedback system, kinaesthetic learners can enjoy the movement while moving around and dipping in and out with their eyes as they please.

What message are you trying to convey through the piece?

Love, equality, pleasure, sharing. I want people to feel something, to be moved and to RELATE to the dancers. All of our material starts with everyday interactions that you would see with lovers and couples in public spaces. This allows audiences to have an instant resonance and empathy with the dancers and is a way that we invite them in to read the dance on their own terms, relating to their own lives and experiences or wishes. I hope for audiences to relate and feel love, pleasure, joy, longing, sadness, elation etc. I hope audiences feel beautiful emotions,across a vast spectrum, associated with love and relating.

What has been your favorite part of the creative process?

Two parts – the original 9-week creation process in 2016 was amazing and then watching the product in awesome spaces with extremely receptive, excited and happy audiences is thrilling.

How will the piece be part of Jacob’s Pillow this summer?

We will be performing several times in and around The Pillow. First is the Fundraising Gala where we will entertain the 600 guests at the cocktail hour. We also perform at a glorious Museum called The Clark and in a small town near Jacob’s Pillow called Pittsfield where the Pillow have regular monthly pop-up performances.

How important do you think opportunities like this are for female choreographers?

Vital – rare – a dream come true – let’s note I am the first choreographer from Scotland to be invited since 1954 so it is really rare! But on the female issue – we need opportunities EVERYWHERE! Everywhere where we are usually locked out of the circle. And we ARE locked out of the circle for the most part. That is fact. So having Directors like The Pillow’s amazing Pam Tatge who champion female choreographers – NOT because we are women but because she recognises our talent! – this is vital! We need more Pams in the dance world.

What is your advice to an aspiring artist?

Don’t give up… I think… but some days I think… get a real job! I tried to do that and it never worked. I have always followed my heart for my art… it has been tough, I won’t lie about that! Sometimes I have (almost) regretted it. I guess I am not helping here!

What’s next for you?

We have some more line-ups for POP-UP Duets but they are not announced yet so I can’t let on!