“The thing itself is not what it is,” Senior Instructor and Artistic Director Emerita Claire Mallardi intones. “It’s that it’s going to lead to something else that you think is better.”
She’s talking about the artistic process—specifically, about the delicate balance between work and play that every artist must find. “The mentality is that you study in order to party, or you commit to something in order to do something else,” she says. Her voice is deep and melodic. She moves with a kind of effortless and powerful grace, trailing scarves, pins, and beads.
Mallardi is a lecturer on the dramatic arts at Harvard. She’s not a taskmaster, but in four decades of teaching at Harvard and Radcliffe, during which she virtually built the dance program from scratch, she’s learned that art is a task, first and foremost.
With an elegance particular to matron dancers, Mallardi speaks of her life with a combination of grace and wry humor. Her stories flow from convivial to grave, from focused to tangential. She spent her childhood in the Bronx, learning tap and jazz by going to the cinema and imitating Fred Astaire and his ilk. Her first dance class was part of an after-school physical education program, and it was in this unlikely setting that she had her first creative breakthrough.
When given an assignment to “do something” with a nursery rhyme, Mallardi says, “Somehow I instantly understood what [the teacher] meant, that I shouldn’t mimic it. We created something. And I went, ‘What is this thing called modern dance!’”
She sought out artistic training whenever and wherever she could, from such celebrated teachers as Blanche Evan, Martha Graham, and Hanya Holm. Once out of high school, she worked as a professional dancer in countless venues: in cabarets, on Broadway, and even in a traveling circus.
In an unlikely turn of events, Mallardi’s reputation for visceral, inventive, and unabashedly artistic dance caught the attention of Radcliffe, an institution whose wealthy and straight-laced reputation seemed inimical to Mallardi’s style, in 1965. She says her initial reaction, when asked to interview for the position of dance instructor, was, “They won’t even understand my English!”
In a way, the statement is not hyperbole. At the time, Harvard really did not speak or understand her language. She was raised in the old school of artistic mentorship: absolute respect for one’s teachers, with the expectation that it took harshness, sometimes even cruelty, to grow as an artist. But at Radcliffe, and later at Harvard, Mallardi learned to work more gently with pupils who were students first, dancers second. Thus, she says she found her own ethos, which mixes an emphasis on tradition and respect with an acknowledgement of her students’ disparate academic pursuits.
Dramatic Arts 15: “Movement for Actors and Directors,” a course that she is now leading for the twentieth time, incorporates dozens of dance and movement styles, from Vaudeville to Kabuki theatre. When asked to who should take her class, Mallardi states, “Everyone, not necessarily just dancers or actors. It’s just movement and creativity embodied. It affects the mind and the emotions….And my students write to me as to how it has affected them later in life, not as dancers, but as just people, in other fields.”
Humanist scholar Svetlana Nikitina agrees with the assessment. She wrote of Mallardi’s course in a 2003 edition of “Journal of Aesthetic Education,” and interviewed a psychology concentrator who called the class “the best psychology course she’d ever taken.” Current student Alan D. Zackheim ’06 also has high praise for Mallardi: “Hers is a profoundly human art form, born out of imagination, dreams, storytelling, history, and base human action and emotion,” he says.
Despite this tender affection from students, Mallardi still believes that art is ultimately about work. She slaps her hands together emphatically, saying, “Every artist, of any importance or ability, they’ll all say the same thing: craft, craft, craft. That’s all you can rely on when all else fails. You have to honor the profession, and yourself.”