Wednesday, 25 February 2015

From the Archives: Janis Claxton interview

Just before Chaos and Contingency took to the road, I watched a rehearsal from the roof at Dance Base. Afterwards, Janis Claxton  spoke to me about the work and her process.

Watching the rehearsal from the roof, two things struck me
immediately: the quality of movement portrayed by the dancers and the way that the very complex mathematical patterns played out so eloquently. Starting with the dancers first -  where did you find them?

They had the softness of tai chi movement and the understated yet confident precision of tango dancers...
I would say the dancers and I found each other - in places between Scotland, New Zealand, Ireland, England, Australia and China. They are a great team and the reason for the unique combination of both softness and precision is to do with training, and a specific kinaesthetic intelligence that I look for and nurture in dancers. 

I am committed to the premise that ease and precision don't have to be enemies and I think this is what you are hitting on in your observations. A lot of contemporary dance is very muscle bound and ridged and this is very popular in the UK. People have a tendency to see 'virtuosity' as legs and arms flinging everywhere with effort, but actually it takes a lot more kinaesthetic intelligence to combine ease and precision than to stick a leg up high in the air with tension. 

So I need to work with a certain kind of dancer who can handle tension and ease in the same muscle group, in the same moment. Chinese dancers have a natural predisposition towards this way of moving. In general their bodies are softer than Westerners and because of a very long and arduous training they can also do the tension. For me the exquisiteness is in the balance and in juxtaposing both. 

Watching that video of the performance on vimeo, I did love the costumes - it is a beautiful red. You are confident in using every aspect of dance to its full measure - the costume, the dance, the space itself. At what point does the costume design come in to the process?

The costume design was early on in the process. As the work is so much about design the costumes were really vital for this work. The designer Matthias Strahm came to watch our work in progress in April 2012 and we began discussions. We (the dancers included as I run a pretty democratic company) decided we wanted gender neutral, extremely elegant costumes to match the grand spaces. I think red was decided quite early although Matthias embellished this with the two tones which I love. 

A lot of measurements were emailed between China and the UK and the costumes were pretty much designed by Jan 21st when the Chinese dancers arrived. However Matthias (who used to be a dancer and really knows his stuff!) came to watch a lot of rehearsals to create the individual aspects for each dancer. The changes in each costume are very subtle but really make the difference. (Costuming also involved a lot of shopping in Beijing last summer with JCD female dancers which was fun to say the least!)

 And the music - I know that you have a strong relationship with the composer. How did you get him involved in this project - when does the music get composed - do you choreograph to it, or add it afterwards?
I first worked with Philip Pinsky on Grid Iron/Lung Has show Huxley's Lab in 2010. I then asked him to work on Humanimalia so this is our third project together and hopefully there will be many more as I love his music and he is great to work with. The wonderful thing with Philip and the way he works with us is that he is in the studio with us a most of the time. It's fantastic and we really interweave the process together as we go. He is right there composing and contributing his ideas as the dancers and I are creating the material. He is an integral part of this process and it really shows in the concurrent dynamics of the music and the dance.

I know that the performance doesn't require Higher mathematics, but I am intrigued to find out about some of the mathematical patterns you are using... are fractals and cellular automatons part of the inspiration for this?
Yes we are using mathematical structures, games and number patterns as inspiration for creating both material and especially structure. I have been inspired by Jon Conway's ''Game of Life'' which is a cellular automaton as well as Fractals, number palindromes and also some composition ideas inspired by Brian Eno. 

We have worked with 'chaos' and the idea that making a small change in a structure or material can yield wildly different results. We have also been strict about staying true to the original set of conditions as a premise for what constitutes chaos rather than just total messy change. Its been fun. But we could change the name of the work to Chaos and Counting!

I saw parallels with the way that the dance evolves and the sort
of patterns that come from this old internet programme which imitates the process of evolution. Was that a conscious choice - either the analogy with the computer programme of the theory of natural selection imposing complexity onto simple patterns?

I don't know what program you are talking about. But the week we began this research The New Scientist had a front page and article about Fractals and evolution! 

We were also working on all the Human Animal stuff so .. connections alert ....

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