“After 15 years of working side by side with Gill on ID, I find myself still unable to articulate the depth of loss of such an inspirational colleague and generous friend. I am so grateful to Siobhan Davies and Rosemary Lee who have written this wonderful obituary.”
Gill Clarke 1954-2011
Gill Clarke – pioneering independent dance artist, was first and foremost a fine person. Her radiant, in-build integrity affected everyone she encountered, and her open yet determined and principled approach to everything she did was exemplary. She loved dance with an intelligent passion, intuitively appreciating that there is a knowing in our bodies most of us never take the initiative to use. Her lifelong work as a performer, teacher and researcher was to reveal the mindful intelligence of the moving body and what that means to all of us as people, our relationships with others and our place in the world.
Gill’s early movement exploration began where she grew up in Cambridge where her father a biochemist/microbiologist was working in cancer research. She studied dance with Mari Bicknell, founder of the Cambridge Ballet Workshop who was a crucial inspiration to her, and was also a hurdler, competing nationally.
Gill first came to prominence as an exceptional dancer through her beautiful performing with Janet Smith and Dancers in the 80’s. She had an exquisite presence and a uniquely rich, flowing quality that audiences had not encountered before. Gill went on to expand and deepen her range as a dancer/performer excelling in her performance and contribution to the work of among others, Rosemary Butcher and Rosemary Lee and particularly Siobhan Davies. Siobhan invited Gill to join her new company in 1988 and so began a close and ongoing collaborative relationship for the rest of her life. Siobhan writes of Gill as a dancer that she “reflected on every action within her body and amassed physical observations that she could release into structured movement. She played with flow and gravity. Rivers of movement lived in the volume of her body rather than on the surface. Actions could feel like painterly marks one moment and a quiet voice the next. She handed over these new maps of physical knowing so that we might work with them choreographically.”
She continued to grow as a dancer, studying and investigating new forms of somatic practice and improvisation throughout her life. Her enquiries as a dance artist extended into her teaching, one fed the other. Her approach to teaching was more as a curious equal, where together, teacher and student could use movement as a resource to delve into and emerge later, exhausted and energised. She led master classes and workshops internationally and also notably stirred interest in British new dance through an EU funded Pedagogy project.
As Head of Performance Studies (2000–06) at Laban (now Trinity Laban) she led a rewriting of the undergraduate programme. She believed passionately that young dancers would gain from deepening their own experience of movement through practices such as experiential anatomy, Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais Technique and other somatic approaches in order to become questioning, intelligent dancers capable of expressive, integrated and engaged dancing. Additionally she sought to give students opportunities to work with a range of choreographers and practitioners whose approach was open, enquiring and ethical. The success of her approach is evident in the abundance of thoughtful, creative dance artists who emerged.
It was Gill’s dream to create an MA within an environment where students could study alongside current practicing professionals. She recently developed modules for a new MA in Creative Practice at Trinity Laban, run by Independent Dance in partnership with Siobhan Davies Dance and aimed at mid-career professional artists. For her, the MA represents a recognition of the commitment, quality and rigour she witnessed in independent dance artists ongoing development and practice. Kirsty Alexander, who worked closely with Gill in the MA’s inaugural year last year, will continue to run these modules.
Gill was involved in research around dance training and education and recently advised on the new Centre for Advanced Training programme for young dancers at Dance4.
Her own education was ongoing up to the very end of her life; she was awarded a first class degree in English and Education at York and recently completed an MA in Social Sciences from OU. She was truly a life long learner and her curiosity and questioning approach was inspiring, affecting all the various projects she initiated or developed.
Spurred by her interest in collaboration and sharing Gill was instrumental in advocating, creating and running events that could provide meeting grounds for those of different disciplines to investigate together. At the Southbank she helped develop programmes bringing together emerging and established choreographers with composers, poets, and filmmakers. In so doing the artists became more aware of each other’s practices and creative collaborations and encounters were spawned. More recently she was involved with the Serpentine and Barbican Galleries, incorporating dance artists within their visual artists exhibitions such as the Barbican exhibition- Pioneers of the Downtown Scene, New York 1970s.
Gill’s own works were often collaborative such as her choreographic ventures with Gandini Juggling. She often worked collaboratively creating live work and installations together with dancers and filmmakers, particularly Becky Edmunds. Gill also instigated the annual festivals What…, through Independent Dance showcasing new and experimental work in dance, film and life art.
Gill’s last work commissioned by Siobhan Davies for the Bargehouse commissions – A Dance of Ownership, A Song in Hand was a poignant, collaborative venture. Made with artist Lucy Skaer, they created a beautiful film and simple durational performance performed by Kirsty Alexander, Fiona Millward and Helka Kaski and shown the week before she died.
There was a rigour to whatever she did and she campaigned for independent dance artists and the art form itself selflessly and fiercely. She combined a highly principled, ethical approach; many of us experienced a particular look she gave if we had fallen short, with an equally attentive openness, we all experienced her ability to give us real time to talk with her. Through this approach Gill was able to quietly influence and promote positive change and creative development across a wide range of fields and organisations too numerous to cover in full.
Susan Sentler Senior Lecturer at Trinity Laban wrote ‘Gill Clarke does not specifically work for a ‘particular institution’ but for the all within dance, and has devoted herself relentlessly to enriching the art form in a multitude of modes and within all kinds of frameworks. Her openness and generosity to students, young artists, practitioners, professionals, institutions, and the general public is outstanding. The hunger and passion for the art form she generates is extraordinary.”
In 1990 Independent Dance began to operate and Gill helped to form its founding principles, by 1996 she and Fiona Millward had joined strengths to continue an initiative that could serve the independence of many dance artists who may not have permanent work but who wish to continue an ongoing research and sharing. Housed within Siobhan Davies Studios, ID’s generous and welcoming approach for emerging and established dance artists to meet, move, learn and share is a godsend for many of us and provides the home Gill wanted to create. She and Fiona have brought many prominent dance artists and teachers to lead workshops, laboratories and explorations as well as providing regular classes, and discussions that continue to support independent dancers. Fiona assisted by Kirsty Alexander and Frank Bock will continue her work in this area. ID became the vehicle for Gill to follow and support her wide interests, she helped build it into a national and international resource.
Gill’s tireless work to support independent dance artists in their enquiry led her to become closely involved in Chisenhale Dance Space, long known for its artist led approach. Her vision for a restructuring of Chisenhale, putting research and process at the heart of their programme, saved the organization from a threatened cut by the Arts Council for a few fruitful years. Thanks to her work on the steering group, Chisenhale was able to offer many artists from emergent to well established, invaluable time and space to investigate and research without the pressure to produce a finished product. She oversaw the selection processes ensuring thoughtful deliberation, utter and scrupulous fairness and transparency, a valuable lesson to all involved. Gill was a member of Chisenhale’s board until 2010.
Gill was also closely involved in Dance UK since it was established in 1982 and she was key to the formation of the Dance UK independent dance artists e-group. As a former board member she was an ardent and committed champion of support and recognition for independent dance artists. Additionally through her ground-breaking report, Independent Dance Review for the Arts Council 1998 she an co writer Rachel Gibson highlighted the reality of how difficult it is to survive as an independent dance artist. She was a joint NESTA fellow, served as a Trustee for countless dance organisations over her career, and was a Patron of Foundation for Community Dance. Along with a London Dance and Performance Award, and an MBE.
Gill was awarded the Jane Attenborough Dance UK Industry Award in January 2011 for her outstanding contribution to dance. Gill’s nominations for the award cited the importance of her impact as an advocate for independent dance artists. Also, her generosity, offering time and advice to support fellow artists, resulted in her being recognised as a major influence on the careers of many independent dance artists and choreographers. In her acceptance letter she wrote – I would like to accept the award on behalf of Independent Dance Artists– that powerful and under-acknowledged workforce that is made up of all those artists who work in the demanding freedom outside the relative security of institutions. These multi-talented artists are vital to the Dance ecology – they are the performers or choreographers of most of the contemporary work seen around the country, they act as bridge-builders, connecting a public of all ages to the rewards of engaging with dance, they teach and inspire the next generation of artists as well as established company members, and most importantly their investment and passion generates knowledge that will help us to keep re-defining Dance, ideas that will find their way into mainstream theatres– and new choreographic forms in media and contexts that we cannot yet imagine.
In the spirit of supporting dance artists in her typical non-judgemental and generous way, Gill was instrumental in promoting a fair and creative approach to feedback. Drawing on the Liz Lerman Critical Response Process and through her own example, she encouraged us all to use this kind of approach in mentoring and giving feedback. Among the numerous initiatives she supported, all of which bettered the conditions and treatment of dancers were the move to have dancers’ names acknowledged more in written publicity, and supporting the work being done to promote good practice in the studio in relation to dancers health.
Poised, gracious and welcoming to all, Gill was a true diplomat. However bad practice where dancers’ physical and mental wellbeing is compromised, and ongoing obstacles to development and equality such as gender imbalance, closed mindedness and ignorance, troubled her greatly. She had no time for egotism, seeking instead to listen, observe, build bridges, expand the frame and promote fair and good practice that was non hierarchical.
In the last ten years she strove to show that dance and movement research is a vital element that can be used and shared within education, health and the social sciences. The particular forms of knowledge that dancers share Gill recognized as being undervalued and largely unacknowledged. She set up with Susan Benn of PAL, Movement and Meaning laboratories described as “a cross-disciplinary exploration of our embodied nature: bringing together the physical and sensory intelligence of dance artists, with scientists, social scientists, influential policy makers and opinion-formers across culture and education.” These labs and talks have and will continue to be fruitful exchanges and each and everyone involved found her modesty, curiosity and knowledge an inspiration.
Gill contemplated the “notion that we are grounded in the relationship with the environment which is changing constantly, what is coming into the present is us and the environment…in conversation. One definition of intelligence could be to be ready to adapt.” She believed the dance practice she and her colleagues are deeply involved in has strong ethical values that are fundamental and timely; namely readiness, openness, curiosity, embracing individual enquiry, working co operatively to find solutions, creating situations where learning can happen, embracing uncertainty, ambiguity and specificity, and “tuning” ones “skills of attention”. What better approach to our time and place.
Working right up to the very end with startling courage, she died as she lived, calmly and with great poise.
—Rosemary Lee and Siobhan Davies (November 2011)
Gill’s class description
Begins from visualisation of skeletal connections and use of the breath to open pathways of energy through the body. We then move on to the exploration of set material, focusing on clarifying awareness of movement through the body and into space, playing with weight shifts, quality, and timing. The aim is always to go beyond learning material to the dancing of it!
Gill studied English and Education at York University and has spent her career as an Independent Dance Artist performer, teacher, choreographer/director, advocate.
A founder member of the Siobhan Davies Dance Company she was recipient of a London Dance and Performance Award. As a freelance performer she has worked with other choreographers and companies including Janet Smith, Rosemary Butcher, Rosemary Lee.
Recent projects have included directing site-specific movement installations, collaborating with composers and choreographing for the Gandini Juggling Project.
“Teaching has always been an integral part of my dance practice, developing alongside my own performing and my own learning and exploration. My teaching has been influenced by study of Alexander and Feldenkrais Techniques, Klein Technique (especially through Jeremy Nelson) and by my own ongoing curiosity with mind and body in motion.”