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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 Lévêque—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 Cartésienne, 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 abensson@fas.harvard.edu.

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