INTERVIEW: Legendary choreographer Janis Claxton brings innovative dance to Merchant City Festival

Janis Claxton is a British/Australian Choreographer, Movement Director, Teacher and Producer based in Edinburgh where she is Artistic Director of the award winning contemporary dance company Janis Claxton Dance. The company tours in the UK and internationally, and has a reputation for bringing high quality works to new and diverse audiences.

Having attracted critical acclaim and international attention in 2016 with the premiere of POP-UP DUETS (fragments of love) her company is performing at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival (USA), Singapore International Arts Festival, the Edinburgh Fringe, Merchant City Festival, in Liverpool, Sweden and Glasgow School of Art and across Scotland.

POP-UP Duets is a series of 5-minute, contemporary dance duets designed to emerge from public situations to be enjoyed by invited as well as accidental audiences who find themselves passing by.

We sat down with Janis over a cup of tea to find out a little more about her life, what she has learnt along the way and where she sees the current state of Scottish dance.

What is your first memory of dance?

My first memory of dance is the earliest memory I have, lying and wiggling around on the warm Australian earth with the vast blue sky above. I also remember running wild and climbing trees and dancing at the beach. Most of my early dance memories are nature related. I begged my mother to let me join my older sister’s ballet class and on my 3rd birthday I was finally allowed. Apparently I immediately started to try to lead the class!

Can you think of a turning point in your career? Either your first professional gig or a next big step?

Oh there has been a few! My first solo performance at age 18 in Brisbane, Erick Hawkins singling me out in class and asking me to his office and to join his company and working with amazing dancers in China at Beijing Dance LDTX all stand out.

More recently, POP-UP Duets itself and being invited to legendary Jacobs Pillow Dance Festival!

What has been your proudest moment?

The entire response to POP-UP Duets and the huge buzz around it. Opening dance to so many new audiences. Sharing all that love. The 76k+ views on BBC Loop has me pretty chuffed! People genuinely love the work and get a lot of pleasure from it, and that makes me very proud.

Have you ever been terrified/what has been your daftest moment?

Often terrified! Daftest moment – probably going the wrong way on stage in an ensemble work! It was my greatest fear and it happened. I was never great at remembering all the moves! I didn’t perform in companies a lot (lucky for them!)

What are the main challenges of international touring?

Money, money and money. Exposure, having connections, being ‘known’. I have never found the actual touring so challenging – it is the getting the gigs that is the challenge. Having said that I spent 3 months in China several times with 3 or 4 dancers and cultural differences between dancers can present a challenge – usually in wonderful ways.

What are the key issues in dance today? And how do you think we can overcome them?

Well there are many. Here are some that I am affected by and that I think I can speak about and hopefully influence;

1. Gender inequality in the lack of access to high profile large-scale commissions for women. Favouritism towards male dancers across the entire spectrum from early training to institutions to the stage to choreographic opportunities. It is endemic. No other industry is so female dominated with so few top jobs being held by women. This is not a ‘moment’ or a ‘blip’, this is a serious systematic problem that courses through the entire industry from ballet to contemporary to hip hop to musical theatre.

2.Training issues – todays dancers have such pressure to be dancers who can do all styles and work with so many diverse choreographers, they no longer have a style or a system or a methodology of movement. Many dancers are all over the place and lack a coherent understanding of basic principles of movement. Dancers are expected to create a lot of a material (this is a good thing – they should, they are good at it and they can own the movement and not be puppets) however without good training they no longer have so many choices and fall into the same habits, creating the same material.

In the dance world there has been such a rebellion against what I call old school principles and such a drive to individualism that I rarely find a group who can work together in the good old fashioned way of sharing the same principles and dancing TOGETHER. My training is from the early leaders – specifically Erick Hawkins but they all shared an ethos of a company that understood the same principles.  Sharing the same principles of movement does not mean all the dancers have to look the same. It gives dancers choice. I have a lot more to say about training. I see it as in a pretty dire place.

What is your elevator pitch for POP-UP Duets?

5 minute love duets for public spaces. The work can be situated anywhere. Even in this elevator! Gorgeous dancers, glorious music and exquisite choreography for you up close and personal or viewed from afar. You will love it!  Who doesn’t relate to love?

POP-UP Duets (fragments of love)

Merchant City Festival, Glasgow – Thursday 9 & Friday 10 August 2018

Image: James Lin