Crossing Borders: 25th October with Gill Clarke

The 25th October; just a bog standard Tuesday evening one would think. Not, however, at Siobhan Davies Studios. The largest gathering of thinkers, creators and movers I ever seen at a Crossing Borders event thronged through the building’s reception, swarming their way up to the roof studio in anticipation. A credit, I think, to Gill Clarke; who’s immense intelligence and deeply somatic and innovative understanding of the body begs a substantial following of artists, scientists and dancers.
Gill begins to talk, prompted by Sue Davies, on her own journey as a dancer into a more somatic and experiential considering of the physical form. After technical vocational training, and a stint dancing for Sue Davies, Gill described how her perceptions changed radically when she started working with contact improviser and Body-Mind Centering practitioner Jeremy Nelson. Over 10 days of ‘very little movement but a lot of visualisation’, Gill proposed that her movement changed over this short expanse of time. Made more aware of bodily structure and its relationship to the ground, there is an increase in sensory information and energy flow, and movement seems to become directed by sensation rather than by specific intention. The body is more aware of itself moving, giving way to a deeply connected and grounded dancing experience and a more informed performativity.
We then move on to that ever expansive question... what is Dance? Gill remarks intriguingly that people can only recognise what dance is when confronted with something that definitely isn’t. We are constantly in negotiation, in conversation with a persistently changing environment which shifts and develops alongside evolutionary intelligence. Through our understanding of this, an acceptance of the inability to actually really pin down what dance is seems to become important. Perhaps the nature of dance itself is that you can’t capture it in one description or definition. It has the potential to take on more and more forms and meanings as our perceptions develop and deepen. Gill describes this in her approach as releasing ‘the muscular thought and bodily containment to alter our perception and find something deeper’. Movement then becomes the resource of dance. Dance is unto itself.
Gill then goes on to describe dance as a kind of currency. Like an aural tradition, it is passed through bodies and it changes and develops depending on the unique attributes of the human form that it inhabits. This can be seen through the choreographer’s and teacher’s roles. When these become more about dance facilitation; where a situation is set up so that learning is possible rather than a mere transference of information. A great knowledge seeker herself, Gill has read more books than one could possibly count, and describes this importance of learning through finding something out yourself as fundamental, an aspect of life that that helps us to evolve. Gill’s approach is naturally all about exploration; it’s less deliberate, less predictable. It’s not about appropriation; it’s about tuning in, pairing away, embracing the process and being in the moment. This ‘pairing away’ Gill describes is a little like the scientific process, such a practice also engages in the simplicity of stripping down the amount of variables involved. Everything in this process is considered and influences the final findings, and in dance terms final performance, even though they may not be immediately present. The only difference of course is the lack of a definitive answer. The results of this pairing process may well be sets of questions themselves, feeding back into the process and propelling it on, an evolutionary momentum with an indefinite amount of possibilities.
Gill then moves on to consider the influence of meaning-making during moving, especially through performance. It is important to let the movement speak, and to give imagination its role to play, however the unsayable is also valid, for example, the pulse speaks, our bodies use movement as communication without sometimes even being aware of it. Why then can’t we use this movement as our own theatrical language? Dance is struggling to validate itself as a discipline because we speak in movement, and this cannot always be recognised within traditional forms of academic communication. How do we harness language from our own practice without alienating others?
Gill stipulates that through this disciplinary openness and ambiguity there must be some element of rigor and purpose. This often comes in the form of theorising the concept that the movement provokes, rather than the movement itself. There is some form of distributed cognition that makes the dancer tune into their movement, and in turn allows the audience to see the embodiment. This, according to Gill, is the difference between dancing and not dancing. There is a sincerity and powerfulness in the ability to be able to keep the gift of experience in the moment without having to talk about it and assign it to a theoretical concept. It can be unto itself.
And so in true Gill Clarke style the talk ends in a seemingly organic circle back to the initial question of what dance is. An expertly crafted and articulated aural essay that seems to just glide effortlessly out of Gill’s stream of consciousness, deeply intelligent ponderings that settle like feathery layers of understanding to create a completely clear sense of comprehension within the listeners, who through their intent attention rapidly nod their heads in agreement.
Gill Clarke died on November 15th 2011, exactly 3 weeks after giving this talk. Her strength and determination shone through even more vividly during her final few weeks of life. She never faltered in her generosity and immense passion for dance and knowledge; a legacy that will continue within the hearts and lives of everyone she touched. It is hard to put into words how much she meant to the dance world, and perhaps true to the final statements in her last talk, our sentiments will play out through a deeper understanding of our own bodies, through her teaching.