Clay and Dance Merge in Joint Program

Catching his breath during the opening number of a Broadway musical, Paulus Berensohn says that he heard a disembodied voice pose a question that was to change his life: “This is dancing on a stage, Paulus, but what does it mean to dance in life?”

Two weeks later, he found the answer when he saw a woman throwing a pot. “I want to learn that dance,” he said to himself, and in that moment took up the craft of pottery.

The metaphysical ties between clay, dance, and creation were explored at the program “Clay Body, Human Body” presented by the Office for the Arts at Harvard (OFA) at the Harvard Dance Center this past weekend. The program featured discussions with Berensohn, a philosopher and so-called “deep ecologist” at the Penland School of Crafts, as well as performances by Christine Dakin, artistic director laureate of the Martha Graham Dance Company, and Rachel A. Cohen ’96, founder of the performance company Racoco Productions.

The interdisciplinary program exposed potters and dancers to each others’ artistic experience. As David J. Tischfield ’09, a ceramicist who runs the Quincy Pottery Studio, put it, “I took away an appreciation for abstract dance, and what other types of art forms exist out there. To me, dance never seemed like an art form because it exists only in the moment—I was absolutely wrong.”

DANCE AND EARTH

In his discussions, Berensohn discussed his philosophy concerning the forces of creation, artistic and otherwise. He bases much of his thought in that of deep ecology, a philosophy which holds that everyone must achieve a “participatory and relational consciousness of a more than human world.” It is in this unconventional spirit that he claims to have encountered 62 other senses—such as heliotropism­—outside of the widely accepted 5.

Berensohn’s morning session consisted of a “Pebble Ritual,” during which each participant was given a handful of clay and asked to make twelve pebbles, harkening back to man’s first playthings. Subsequently laid out against a blue cloth, they created a clay cosmos, around which the group performed a Greek circle-dance.

Drawing upon scientific theories of both the Big Bang and the Gaia Hypothesis, Berensohn emphasized the idea that art precedes science in his impromptu dissertations on topics like the Bible, our existence as “terraqueous beings,” and the living goddess that is the Earth.

“Clay is made of stardust,” he said.

During the dance portions of the workshop, Dakin began with a warm-up that focused on the dancer’s connection to the earth, embodying much of what Berensohn sought to convey.

After lunch, Dakin performed Martha Graham’s “Lamentation.” “When I saw this piece, it was like a living sculpture,” she said.

Performed within an elastic tubular fabric, the way in which Dakin shaped not only her body but the geometric space around her seemed to embody the abstract connections between clay and dance that the event sought to demonstrate.

TAKING IT OUTSIDE

Following her performance of the original piece, “Thrown,” Cohen of Racoco Productions explained how she came to explore clay and dance. “I felt uncomfortable just dancing in space,” she said. “The things around us are as much a part of our lives.

“It didn’t make sense to dance in the abstract,” she added. “Clay has an almost metaphysical relationship to the body.”

For the workshop’s final segment, Berensohn led the group outside, where he expanded his discussion to Eastern medicine, capitalism, “inner assurance” (his alternative to health insurance), and the gods and goddesses of the body. He argued that deep ecology is a way of life, drawing on the more-than-human in the everyday.

It is this sense of continuousness between art and life that Berensohn stressed above all else throughout the weekend.

“Both dance and pottery are the practice of innocence, the practice of awe,” he emphasized. “What we need is not more objects of art but more artistic behavior.”

—Staff writer Anna K. Barnet can be reached at abarnet@fas.harvard.edu.