Maxwell’s Modern Dance Revolution

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

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.