Feature: Gill Clarke MBE (1954-2011)

Friday 16 December 2011 by Carmel Smith

Gill Clarke in 'Wild Translations' by Siobhan Davies, 1995. Photo: Hugo Glendinning

Choreographer Rosemary Lee remembers her friend and colleague who died in November.

With the death of Gill Clarke the dance world has lost an exemplary guiding light. Her radiant poised presence, her warm openness, her curiosity, intelligence, and ethical approach was a lesson to all who encountered her.

Gill’s early movement exploration began where she grew up in Cambridge. She studied dance with Mari Bicknell, founder of the Cambridge Ballet Workshop, who was a crucial inspiration, and she was also a hurdler, competing nationally.

Gill was the Fonteyn of the contemporary dance world in the ’80s and ’90s, the seamless, flowing movement that she could send through her body with clarity, power and ease was first evident when she danced with Janet Smith and Dancers; she went on to be a founder member of Siobhan Davies Dance Company deepening and exploring her range as a dancer there and also in my work and the work of Rosemary Butcher.

Her spirit of enquiry pervaded everything she did. She herself was a true lifelong learner, gaining a first in English and Education and recently studying for an MA in Social Studies at the Open University, alongside all her other endeavours. This spirit was at the heart of her teaching, she encouraged her students to investigate, to ask questions of themselves, to listen and deepen their sensory awareness. Gill led workshops nationally and internationally affecting generations of dancers, notably recently through an EU project on pedagogy. As Head of Performance Studies at Trinity Laban ( 2000 – 6) Gill brought intensive somatic practice to the programme and gave students opportunities to work with practicing choreographers and artists. This combination stimulated the students to broaden their horizons and deepen their explorations of their own bodies and the creative practice.

She recently helped develop a new MA in Creative Practice at Trinity Laban, hosted at Siobhan Davies Studios and run by Independent Dance. This is the culmination of her dream to create an MA within an environment where students could study alongside current practicing professionals. Aimed at mid career artists, for her it represented a recognition of the ongoing commitment, quality and rigour she witnessed in independent dance artists.

Gill was known within the dance world for her unswerving support of independent dance artists, she herself was fiercely independent, resisting becoming institutionalized so that she could pursue her own paths of explorations without hindrance. She accepted the Jane Attenborough Dance UK Industry Award in Jan 2011 for her outstanding contribution to dance 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….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.”

One of the key ways Gill supported these dancers was through Independent Dance, which she help to form. By 1996 she and Fiona Millward had joined strengths to continue an initiative that could serve the independence of many dance artists. Housed within Siobhan Davies Studios, ID’s generous and welcoming approach for emerging and established dance artists provides an home for them to meet, move, learn and share. ID have brought many prominent dance artists and teachers to lead workshops, laboratories and explorations as well as providing resources, regular classes, and discussions.

Gill’s tireless work to support 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 and offered many artists emergent and established invaluable time and space to research without pressure to produce.

Gill was also closely involved in shaping Dance UK that represents and advocates for dancers and choreographers across the dance world, since it was established in 1982 and she was key to the formation of the Dance UK independent dance artists’ e-group. She was also Patron of the Foundation for Community Dance and worked with countless other diverse dance organisations. Additionally through her ground-breaking report, the Independent Dance Review, commissioned by the Arts Council in 1998, she and co-writer Rachel Gibson highlighted the reality of how difficult it is to survive as an independent dance artist. Among the numerous initiatives she supported, all of which bettered the conditions and treatment of dancers, were to have individual dancers’ names credited in publicity material, and supporting the promotion of 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.

Spurred on by her interest in collaborative ways of creating and working she initiated many ventures that brought different artists together, spawning new partnerships. Her own works were also collaborative such as her choreographic ventures with Gandini Juggling and her live work and installations made together with dancers and filmmakers, particularly Becky Edmunds. 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 and shown the week before she died.

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. Gill recognized that the particular forms of knowledge dancers share, was often 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 and knowledge an inspiration.

Gill’s passionate belief was that the dance practice she and her colleagues are involved in, has strongly embedded ethical values that are fundamental and timely; 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.

A longer obituary by Rosemary, with Siobhan Davies appears on the Dance UK website

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