CLARA GIBSON MAXWELL
BIOGRAPHY: CLARA GIBSON MAXWELL
Clara Gibson Maxwell is one of the most audacious and autonomous choreographers of her generation. Her choreography draws its inspiration from the deep roots of the American modern dance tradition and from the lively and stimulating atmosphere of contemporary Parisian dance.
Maxwell studied philosophy, dance, and film at Harvard University . She danced with Satoru Shimazaki in New York and has performed the choreographic works of her friends Antony Tudor and Anna Sokolow , as well as those of Martha Graham and José Limon , at the Juilliard School . Her teacher, Hanya Holm , who introduced the German dance of Mary Wigman to the United States, wrote: "Clara has the capacity to extract essential values for the dance."
In Paris, Clara danced with the Buto choreographer Ko Murabushi , the expressionist Marilen Breuker, and the Americans Andy de Groat, Ruby Shang, and Mark De Garmo. After her choreographic debut in Parisian dance studio performances during 1987-1988, the world premiere of Antoine Campo's Ophélie Song at the Café de la Danse the following year met with a public and critical success in Paris and led to a tour to New York's La MaMa E.T.C. and the Edinburgh Fringe . The Village Voice praised "the remarkable physical articulation of the dancer's fluid body" and "the rich, bewitched, otherworldliness of Maxwell's singing voice," while the Paris fashion magazine, Joyce, said simply that she had "danced and sung to perfection."
In the early 1990s, a new stage began when she met jazz musician/classical composer Ornette Coleman . Maxwell continued her music-dance collaborations during an intense period of studies and creation with Coleman. The fruit of this collaboration: CHOROS. In order to create a movement vocabulary consonant with the "Harmolodic" music of Mr. Coleman--which gives equal value to harmony, motion (or rhythm), and melody--Clara spent long hours experimenting alone in her Paris studio and improvising live with Ornette in his Harlem studio .
With another jazz composer, Alan Silva (collaborator of Cecil Taylor), she created Celtic Baby Disco at the Düren, Germany Freien Kulturgruppen Festival and Equine Geometry, a duo for dancer and horse in a sculpture garden, for the Heimbach, Germany Avant-Garde Festival in homage to Frank Wright . The premier of Bubbeh's Grace, in collaboration with composer Jessica Krash, took place at the New Music Series of the University of Maryland--College Park Buried Oak, a homage to her friend and late dance teacher Jerome Andrews (colleague of Graham, Wigman, and Joseph Pilates), was presented at the Palazzo Bardi in Florence, Italy, Dance Theater Workshop in New York, and Tanz Tangente in Berlin. Maxwell returned to the United States for Creation Myth, a ballet for children integrating children's choir, saxophone, viola, and harp at National Park Service's Glen Echo Park in Maryland. Certified as a teacher of the Alexander Technique , she occasionally conducts movement, improvisation, and lighting workshops in the United States and Europe with her Mon Oncle D'Amérique team of artists, musicians, and technicians.
In tandem with certification in the Alexander Technique, Clara broached in 1995-96 reflections on the possibility of a unity of body, mind, and soul. Cartesian Studies, then La Cartésienne, are based on the correspondence between Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia and the philosopher René Descartes. She choreographed and danced in this trio of women dancers, accompanied by harpsichord, cello, and bagpipes, in Paris at the Théâtre Dunois and in Newburyport, Massachusetts at the Firehouse Center for the Arts. The University of Massachusetts at Amherst projected La Cartésienne as part of a conference on "Seventeenth-Century Women Philosophers."
The Maison des Cultures du Monde in Paris offered Maxwell in the Spring of 1997 her first French commission. She was asked to explore Western eros today. Le Corps-Éros closed out the first-annual Festival de l'Imaginaire . This performance was followed by a two-hour round-table discussion of her dance by anthropologists, sociologists, and writers. "In an immanence situated here and now," wrote Jean-Marie Brohm regarding Le Corps-Éros, "Clara poses in fact the question of aesthetic and ethical transcendence. From the site of her body, she invokes a horizon of values and positions taken in favor of political freedoms, the free disposition of one's body, the affirmation of the permanent necessity of challenging every form of power and every institution, including, of course, the institutions that dominate the body." In June, Maxwell presented at the Studio de l'Ermitage her new creation, Corparole/Bodytalk, with the world premiere of two dances based on music by Coleman. In March 1998, she was invited to participate in a colloquium at the Centre Thomas More in l'Arbresle on "The Body and Art in the 20th Century," along with writer and art critic Marc Le Bot , painter Ernest Pignon Ernest , and art historian Claude Frontisi. There, in the church of Sainte-Marie de la Tourette , a monastery designed by Le Corbusier near Lyon, she unveiled Corpus, still another volet of her active philosophical-choreographic meditations on the body. Corpus was followed in February 1999 by Corpsensus . This multimedia work integrating dance, music, painting, incense, spices..., was performed with another female dancer, piano, cello, and violin at Paris's Théâtre du Renard. Accompanying each evening's performance--which included the live European premiere of Coleman's Trinity composition for solo violin--was a Chautauqua from several French art critics, art historians, and philosophers. They took the themes of Corpsensus, "social body, political fabric, philosophical passion," as points of departure for their own talks.
In the year 2000, Maxwell danced for the year-end gathering of the local Greens Party (Les Verts) in her 14th arrondissement. She also was awarded a residency that year at Workspace for Choreographers in Sperryville, Virginia, prior to D.C. dancer Nancy Havlik performing Serious Joy, Clara's piece set to music by African-American classical composer Jeffrey Mumford, at Dance Place. Maxwell returns regularly to the nation's capital to participate in The Field and to collaborate with D.C. Fieldworker Laura Schandelmeier. A rigorous procedure for giving constructive feedback for artists' work in progress, The Field is a unique and original approach to mutual mentoring not found in France. Clara has performed Trinity in Fieldwork showings in 2000 and 2003, bringing in Coleman's concert Master, the violinist Tom Chiu. In 2004, she premiered there Keeping Still/Mountain, choreographed for her by her old Juilliard School partner, Robert Garland (Dance Theater of Harlem's resident choreographer). She has performed Laura's solo, Annabelle in The Field, while Schandelmeier has performed Clara's solo L'Aimable in The Field (assisted by Clara's dance collaborator Isabelle Pierre), on the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage, as well as for salon performances in New York City and elsewhere.
At the invitation of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Maxwell and her artistic-technical collaborators created The Banquet in February 2001 while in residency at the architect's desert home, Taliesin West, near Scottsdale, Arizona. This multi-arts, site-responsive event performed in Wright's theater brought together dance, music, spoken text, painted decor, lighting, and projections on dancers' bodies of the films of experimental film maker James Edward Davis, a Wright colleague from Maxwell's native West Virginia. Her company returned to Paris to inaugurate the March exhibit of José Ferreira's "copy-art" works at the Centre des Arts Vivants.
Maxwell's innovative, developing work is now often shown as part of informal café discussions. Intrinsic to the exploration of new ways of experiencing the unity of movement and music is the need felt by Clara and her collaborators to test such experimentations in a setting where there is direct contact with an uninitiated audience. Maxwell collaborated with Gale Prawda's Café Philo group, dancing at the famous Café de Flore as introduction to the evening's scheduled discussion topic: "What do we as spectators learn from the experience of watching a performance? Can it deepen an experience of dance and music to talk about it?" Especially poignant after the September 11, 2001 events, which had unexpectedly occurred just a week earlier, the audience made up largely of expatriate Americans was moved to talk about art and life and Clara's dance late into the night, well after the performance and conversation were scheduled to end. Maxwell was then sponsored by the Mayor of the 14th arrondissement's "Journées Portes Ouvertes" program and L'Entrepôt in May of 2002. Se plaire à Plaisance animated street ambulations and public visits to artists' studios in her local Paris neighborhood, departing from a home base on the Entrepôt café's stage. She danced in response to the artists' paintings, some of them being created while she danced. Clara and Café Philo returned to Café Flore in 2003, and she also organized another Café Philo evening at Les Sept Lézards jazz club, along with Chiu and jazz pianist Bobby Few, around the theme of improvisation. Owner Catherine Volcovici enthusiastically declared that it was one of the most imaginative and creative evenings Les Sept Lézards had ever programmed. Maxwell, Few, and saxophonist Noah Howard inaugurated a new performance space in Brussels in March of the following year.
Also in 2004, Paris Deputy Mayor in charge of New Technologies and Research invited Clara and her artistic/technical team to perform in the Salon des Arcades at the Hôtel de Ville, Paris's City Hall. Hundreds had to be turned away from this major event that brought James Edward Davis back to the city where he had studied art. Video projections on dancers' bodies of Davis's experimental films, a moving décor made of an experimental high-tech material, Luminex®, dance, and live music (including accompaniment by master djembe player Guem) combined with a reflection on the utility and purpose of new technologies in relation to artistic creativity.
The year 2005 was a subdued year, professionally and personally, for Maxwell. After beginning an extended performance residency at Les Sept Lézards jazz club in Paris in an April collaboration with Bobby Few, she was called back home to attend to family health problems. Yet she managed to find the time to teach the Alexander Technique to graduate students in the Theater Department at West Virginia University during the Fall semester, publishing an account of her experience in ExChange, the trade journal of Alexander Technique International. She also returned to Washington, D.C. at the invitation of her collaborator there, Laura Schandelmeier, to participate in the "Arts on Foot" kick-off event for the upcoming annual Capital Fringe Festival. Maxwell and Schandelmeier took over an empty downtown D.C. storefront to perform an unusual duo in conjunction with Tom Chiu, connected from Brooklyn via a Skype internet hookup.
As Maxwell looks forward to the future, she has begun to revive her earlier experimental work creating Urban Dance Statements and is currently in negotiations with donors and arts foundations in West Virginia to bring her James Edward Davis Project to her and Davis's home state.