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Maxwell's Modern Dance Revolution

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Published on Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Maxwell's Modern Dance Revolution

After leaving Harvard, Clara G. Maxwell pursues rewarding career in dance

By ANNE E. BENSSON

Crimson Staff Writer

Tripping on acid to the tune of a Bach cantata sung by a friend in the cold
December air, Clara G. Maxwell, Class of 1980, stood on top of Mount
Monadnock in 1978 and faced her future.

She would meet her future life partner, David A. Curtis 78, later that day,
but at that moment, she celebrated a life-changing decision --she was
leaving Harvard University on an extended leave of absence to study dance
at The Julliard School in New York.

The idea seemed crazy at the time; Maxwell's father and uncle--both Harvard
graduates--and her Harvard dance instructor Claire Mallardi, thought that
she was having a nervous breakdown and even asked her to see a
psychiatrist. To moderate their fears, she began work with an eyes-open
meditation--Alexander Technique--that was originally developed for
performers by actor Frederick Matthias Alexander. Though Maxwell decided to
stick with Alexander Technique, which she describes not as therapy but as
an " educational process" that "allows people to rediscover their natural
balance by fostering an awareness of the ways we move and behave in various
activities," she refused to abandon her commitment to dance.

Eventually, Maxwell's father accepted her chosen career, but assured her
that she would never excel at it professionally. For Maxwell, this
encapsulated everything she was trying to escape from at Harvard.
"In a way, his attitude reflected for me at the time the shortcomings of
the Harvard mentality: the inability to tolerate a process and a 'means
whereby' that would allow creativity to emerge," Maxwell writes in an
e-mail. "Certainly, I was mediocre for a long time. You have to tolerate
mediocrity, with an eye to getting through it to a different place."

LIFE AT JULLIARD

In 1980 Maxwell enrolled at Julliard, where she felt "blackballed" because
of her presence as an intellectual--she kept her affiliation with Harvard a
secret as long as possible--and as a feminist who refused to market her sex
appeal.

Fortunately her work choreographing and dancing with talented classmates
such as Michael Schumacher, Mark Haim, and Robert Garland, and her close
relationship with teacher Hanya Holm, helped her learn how to make a place
for herself in the world of dance.

Maxwell's path through Julliard was just as unconventional as the one she
took through Harvard.

Holm, who became Maxwell's mentor, was only allowed to teach theory, since
Martha Hill--the director of dance at Julliard--did not want her students
picking up any of the provocative movements Holm had become known for at
the Bennington Dance Festival in the 1930s. Since Holm technically could
not instruct dance or choreography, Maxwell locked herself in a room with
her teacher in order to show Holm her work.

"Julliard was designed to turn you into a circus pony," she says, recalling
Hill's mission to have all of her students placed in major dance companies.
But Maxwell wanted to be able to experiment and to go beyond the boundaries
of American dance, so she moved to Europe.

BON VOYAGE

After graduating from Julliard in the spring of 1984, Maxwell tried to get
a job waitressing in New York, but was quickly fired because she could
never remember the orders. Feeling too "artsy-fartsy" for New York, Maxwell decided to move to Paris.

"I figured that if I was a dancer, that I would be broke and unhappy and
unknown all my life, and I wanted to be in a place where there would be
beautiful works of art that could cheer me up," Maxwell says. "Paris was as
far away from New York as I could imagine"

Maxwell, who reunited with her boyfriend Curtis in 1982, decided to travel
with him to France, where her older sister lived.

Though both had a working knowledge of French--Maxwell having spent her
senior year of high school studying in Paris and Curtis having encountered
it as a translator of philosophy--they spent their first three months in
Europe traveling through Germany so that Maxwell could audition for various
companies, including Pina Bausch, who rejected her because she was "too
cheerful."

"I looked like a cheerleader at a sado-masochist encounter," Maxwell says,
laughing. "Nobody was interested in me in Germany. "
Returning to Paris, Maxwell took any dancing job she could find. From 1985
to 1988, she worked as a traveling circus clown and kick-line chorus girl
for Cirque Magicville; she also choreographed and danced a gypsy solo with
Danse de Roumanie, a traveling Romanian folk dance company.

Through her work choreographing and dancing in smaller Paris dance venues,
Maxwell was eventually asked to choreograph, sing, and star in Ophelie
Song, a "rock opera" based on Shakespeare's Hamlet and told from Ophelia's
viewpoint. The production, which toured Paris' Café de la Danse, New York's
La MaMa Experimental Theater Club, and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival,
received critical attention and good reviews.

COLEMAN COLLABORATION

In the early 1990s, Maxwell was introduced to classical and jazz composer
Ornette Coleman, with whom she felt she could connect musically.

She embraced his muscial theory of "harmolodics," which gives equal weight
to harmony, melody, and movement. The two exchanged phone numbers and kept
in touch, maintaining a friendship and collaboration she says she still
values today.

"I wanted to find a composer I could connect with about form," Maxwell says. "Balanchine found Stravinsky, I found Coleman." She notes that her
favorite piece, "Trinity," was composed for two dancers and a violinist
playing Coleman's music.

"I was very enticed because her dance has as many forms as there are in
music, and I was really moved by the way she performed. She's very natural
and very creative," says Coleman, noting that Maxwell sees no difference
between her dancing and the music from the violin.

In 1997, Maxwell received a commission from the Festival de l'Imaginaire,
for which she created Corps-Eros in order to explore western eros.

The solo, which she performed nude, was followed by a two-hour discussion
by anthropologists, sociologists, novelists, art historians, and critics,
and received great critical acclaim.

"She is...an excellent dancer and an exceptional choreographer. In seeing
her move eurythmically...one often has the impression that she is not a
dancer but the dance itself. What more can be said?" wrote Pierre
LévLque--president emeritus of the University of Besançon--on Maxwell's
website.

PHILOSOPHY OF DANCE

As a choreographer, Maxwell says her job is to present her audience with
her idea of how the world is or should be. The marriage of her choreography
with philosophy hearkens back to her days at Harvard, where both she and
Curtis concentrated in philosophy.

"I wanted to study philosophy and aesthetics at Harvard and nobody would
give me the time of day," says Maxwell, recalling a day during the blizzard
of 1978 when she discovered the diaries of Thoreau in Widener library. "I
went into the woods to live deliberately, to confront the essential facts
of life," she quotes from Thoreau's Walden. "Part of the reason I wanted to
dance was because I felt that dancers did this."

"A lot of her work combines dance with philosophical subjects and a number
of her performances invite participation and discussion by intellectuals
and also by the audience, so that the entire evening is in the mode of
questioning," says Curtis, who is also the administrator of Maxwell s
production company, Mon Oncle D'Amerique Productions. He cites Maxwell's
1997 production La Cartm©sienne, or Cartesian Women, which is based on the correspondence between Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia and philosopher René
Descartes, as an example of the correlation between her dance and
philosophy.

For Maxwell, who chose never to marry or have children, dance is
everything.

"I really love dancing. I can never get enough of it, so it doesn't really
feel like work, it feels like endless pleasure," she says. "I don't do a
lot of projects in a year, and when I do, it takes all year, but I just
feel that for the moment of joy that I get in performing it, it's worth it.
It's a freedom that no one can ever take away from me. Whether people like
or dislike what I do, I always have the experience."

--Staff writer Anne E. Bensson can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Copyright © 2005, The Harvard Crimson Inc.

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  • Artist / Group Name: Clara Gibson Maxwell
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