Gill Clarke MBE
Contemporary dancer, choreographer, teacher and tireless advocate of independent artists
Gill Clarke, who has died of cancer aged 56, was one of the foremost contemporary dancers of her generation. She was also a renowned teacher and a tireless advocate for the independent dance sector – the world of freelance dancers and choreographers working outside established institutions. As a dancer, Clarke was outstanding not, like some performers, because she projected a powerful stage persona, but for a rarer quality. She had the capacity to immerse herself in movement until her presence seemed to merge into a bigger idea: the dance itself. That spirit was the hallmark of all her work, both on and off the stage.
She first attracted attention in the 1980s, working with the choreographers Janet Smith, Rosemary Butcher, Rosemary Lee and, most extensively, Siobhan Davies, of whose company she was a founder member in 1988, and where she remained until 1999. In each of these cases, the partnership between dancer and choreographer produced some of the most stimulating work of their careers. Two distinctive solos made with Davies illustrate different aspects of Clarke’s dancing. In the opening solo from Affections (1996), you could almost feel her breath reaching through her limbs or spiralling inside her torso. In contrast to that contained intensity, in Bank (1997) it was the inventiveness and density of detail in the dancing that struck you, and the exactitude of its execution.
“We both thought that movement itself was very communicative without narrative,” said Davies, “and Gill would use every part of her body to articulate that. In rehearsal, we loved forging detailed writing in the body together, which in performance she would make look intuitive and coherent. Her movement was always real. There was no showing off with Gill: she was a doer.”
Alongside her performing career, Clarke worked as a choreographer and a creative adviser, and was in high demand as a teacher in Britain and abroad. She also became increasingly involved in dance advocacy and provision. In 1982 she helped to found the national advocacy organisation Dance UK. In 1990 she began teaching at the now defunct Holborn Centre for Performing Arts, which hosted the first daily professional contemporary dance classes in London, designed to cater for the growing number of freelance dancers. This initiative developed into Independent Dance, an organisation that Clarke directed for the rest of her life (with Fiona Millward as co-director from 1996). Operating since 2006 from the Siobhan Davies Studios, in south London, its activities have expanded beyond dance classes to include seminars, summer schools and workshops.
In 1998, with Rachel Gibson, Clarke wrote and researched the Independent Dance Review for Arts Council England. The review documented the vitality and productivity of independent dancers and choreographers and the often severe financial, contractual and physical conditions in which they worked, as well as proposing some radical reforms. Soon afterwards, Clarke was instrumental in revitalising Chisenhale Dance Space, a historic artist-led centre for experimental dance in Bow, east London.
At the Southbank Centre, Clarke helped to develop programmes that brought together choreographers with artists from other fields such as composers, poets and film-makers. From 2000 to 2006, she was head of performance studies at Trinity Laban conservatoire, where she later developed a new MA course in creative practice, designed for mid-career dance artists to develop their work with the support of researchers, teachers and established choreographers.
Over the past year, Clarke became deeply involved in cross-disciplinary projects at PAL (Performing Arts Lab, also at Siobhan Davies Studios) in which she upheld her core belief in the body not only as a means of action and expression, but as a source of knowledge and understanding.
During 2011, she was also connected with several art gallery projects. For the Pioneers of the Downtown Scene exhibition at the Barbican art gallery, she helped to remount dance pieces by Trisha Brown from the late 60s and early 70s. She was a choreographer for the I Love Egypt project at the Serpentine Gallery and she created (with Lucy Skaer) a film installation for Siobhan Davies Commissions at the Bargehouse gallery on the South Bank in London.
Clarke grew up in Cambridge, where her father was a microbiologist working in cancer research. As a girl she excelled at sports, competing as a hurdler at national level. She was inspired by her dance studies, from the age of seven, with Mari Bicknell at the Cambridge Ballet Workshop. After graduating with a first-class degree in English and education from the University of York in 1977, she embarked on her career in dance.
She was appointed MBE in 1998. Earlier this year, in recognition of her diverse achievements in independent dance, she was granted the Jane Attenborough Dance UK industry award at the Critics’ Circle National Dance awards. Though she did not attend the ceremony – she was, as ever, working on a project – she sent a message accepting the award “on behalf of independent dance artists, that powerful and under-acknowledged workforce … who work in the demanding freedom outside the relative security of institutions. These multi-talented artists are vital to the dance ecology; they are the performers or choreographers of most of the contemporary work seen around the country; they act as bridge-builders, connecting a public of all ages to the rewards of engaging with dance; they teach and inspire the next generation of artists as well as established company members; and most importantly their investment and passion generates knowledge that will help us to keep redefining dance.”
Though living with cancer during her last years, she kept her innate focus, fierce independence and sense of commitment to the end: on the day before she died, she had visited colleagues to discuss the future of her work.
She is survived by her brother, Peter, her nephew, David, and her niece, Xilonem.
PAL Trustee and former Chair, Bob Lockyer, has been described as “one of the great heroes of British dance” (National Dance Critic’s Circle), whose 40-year career as director and producer of dance programmes for BBC television has played a huge part in developing the art form’s popularity.
He celebrates his 70th birthday this year by inviting five of the country’s outstanding dance artists – Richard Alston, Mark Baldwin, Siobhan Davies, Wayne McGregor and Monica Mason to curate an evening of original choreography, either creating a new piece, or commissioning young talents to perform at The Place in London in April 2012.
Richard Alston and Mark Baldwin will each be presenting a new piece of choreography; Siobhan Davies has commissioned Charlie Morrissey, from Siobhan Davies Dance Company; Monica Mason has chosen a graduate-year student from The Royal Ballet School, Sebastian Goffin; and Rob Binet, Choreographic Apprentice at The Royal Ballet, has been appointed by Wayne McGregor.
This exceptional one-off night of dance features dancers from Rambert Dance Company, Wayne McGregor | Random Dance, Richard Alston Dance Company, London Contemporary Dance School (LCDS) and The Royal Ballet School, and live musical accompaniment. As well as performing Alston’s homage to Bob Lockyer, Richard Alston Dance Company will close the event with Shuffle It Right, one of Alston’s iconic compositions.
Dance in all its forms has been part of my life for over 40 years, along with those who perform it, create it, and teach it. I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate my 70th birthday than by asking friends to present new works for this performance, supporting younger talents and giving us all a night to remember, whilst investing in the future of the art form I love the most. Thanks to their generosity, and yours, it will also raise funds to support the future.
Former pop drummer, self-taught filmmaker Franny Armstrong came to a PAL FactFiction Lab to develop her prize winning feature climate change documentary The Age of Stupid. Franny was born 1972, has directed three feature documentaries – The Age of Stupid (2008), McLibel (2005) and Drowned Out (2003) – which have together been seen by 70 million people on TV, cinema, internet and DVD worldwide.
In the early days of the internet in 1996 she founded the McSpotlight website, which Wired magazine described as “the blueprint for all activist websites”. Through her company, Spanner Films, Franny pioneered the “crowd-funding” finance model, which allows filmmakers to raise reasonable-size budgets whilst retaining ownership of their films – Age of Stupid is the most successful known example, raising £900,000+ from 300+ investors – as well as the “Indie Screenings” distribution system, which lets anyone make a profit by holding screenings of independent films – Stupid was screened locally 1,100+ times in the first six months. In March 2009, the solar-powered Age of Stupid “People’s Premiere” set a new Guinness World Record by being simultaneously screened in 63 cinemas across Britain, whilst only producing 1% of the emissions of a standard premiere. It also hit No 1 at the UK Box Office, backed by zero pounds spent on advertising. Then in September 2009, a million people watched Stupid’s Global Premiere event – featuring Kofi Annan, Gillian Anderson & Radiohead’s Thom Yorke – in 700 cinemas in 63 countries, linked by satellite. In September 2009 Franny founded the 10:10 climate campaign which aims to cut the UK’s carbon emissions by 10% during 2010 and which has amassed huge cross-societal support including Adidas, Microsoft, Spurs FC, the Royal Mail, 75,000 people, 1,500 schools, a third of local councils, the entire UK Government and the Prime Minister. 10:10 launched internationally in March 2010 and, as of July 2010, has autonomous campaigns up and running in 41 countries, where some of the key sign-ups include the French Tennis Open, the city of Oslo and L’oreal. 10:10 estimates that organisations doing 10:10 have so far cut 500,000 tonnes of C02.
Franny has been called a “21st Century Heroine” by Harper’s Bizarre, an “Eco Hero of the Decade” by The Guardian, one of “London’s 1,000 most influential people” by The Evening Standard, one of the world’s “Top 100 Women” by the Guardian and “Green Personality of the Year” by Edie. She is a Londoner born and bred.
Filmmaker and former actress from England, who made her feature film directorial debut in 2006 with Red Road.
In 2003 PAL held a Screenwriters Lab focused on the making of feature film scripts from documentary sources. It drew participants from a diverse range of backgrounds including China, Sudan, Lithuania and Israel. Among the many talented writers at this Lab was Andrea Arnold, soon to be an Oscar-winner.
“My project was at a very early stage and I didn’t know how it would move on but I found in this environment it flourished. By the time I’d left I felt like I had very clear idea of what its emotional core was, who the central characters were, had written the first act and had a plan to write the rest of it.” Andrea Arnold
After leaving school in the late 70s, Arnold got her first TV jobs as a dancer on shows that included Top of the Pops. She first came to prominence as an actress and television presenter alongside Sandi Toksvig, Nick Staverson and Neil Buchanan in the 1980s children’s television show No. 73. This Saturday morning show on ITV, in which she played Dawn Lodge, had a similar premise to that of The Kumars at No. 42 in the way that the show was part sitcom, part chat show and based at a domestic residence. In addition to these parts, the show had the usual mix of music, competitions and cartoons (such as Roger Ramjet) that was in keeping to the formula of British Saturday morning children’s TV of the 1980s.
In 1988 No. 73 had morphed into 7T3, with the set being moved from the Maidstone house (in fact in TVS studios in Kent) to that of a theme park. This revamp would only last the season, but Arnold would be seen for another two years in the same timeslot as part of the Motormouth presenting team. In 1990 she presented and wrote for the environmental awareness show for teens, A Beetle Called Derek. This also featured Benjamin Zephaniah and gave exposure to The Yes/No People of Stomp fame.
After retiring from her career as a television presenter, Arnold studied directing at the prestigious AFI Conservatory in Los Angeles and trained in screenwriting at the PAL Labs in Kent. She won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film for Wasp, in 2005. Red Road is the first instalment of Advance Party, a planned set of three conceptually-related films by different first-time directors made my list of the best films of the decade – as did her follow up Fish Tank. Now she’s back taking on Emily Brontë’s classic novel while following her bracing portraits of female desire in her two previous works.
Published on September 1, 2011 by Ricky in Blog, Toronto International Film Festival.