‘You could write my obit.’
These are hard words to hear from a friend. They’re certainly not the sort of words an arts journalist might expect to hear spoken by an artist from her death-bed, but then my relationship with the late, Brisbane-born but Edinburgh-based dancer, choreographer, and producer Janis Claxton wasn’t necessarily typical of what commonly transpires between two people occupying professional roles that some might (typically and erroneously, in my opinion) view as combative.
Janis will have been dead for about four weeks as I write this. Today, October 6, Facebook reminded me that it was – or would have been – her 54th birthday. I miss her. As a colleague put it, ‘The room’s gone a lot quieter without her in it.’ The remark came from someone who didn’t know Janis well, and I suspect maybe never even met her face to face. But, especially in an era of rampant social media, he knew of her. Janis wasn’t hesitant to use virtual platforms to put forth her ideas, including – and this next subject became increasingly important to her in the final stages of a life cut short on September 7 by lung cancer – an insistence on a fifty-fifty gender parity in terms of programming and proper and sustained structures of support for female dance-makers in a field still dominated by men.
But, while this personal campaign is absolutely a valuable part of her legacy, it’s also another story for another time.
Some publications did produce obituaries about Janis or, in the case of Scottish Dance Theatre’s artistic director, a tribute. Not having an immediate platform in which to write about her, the best I could do initially was help grease the wheels for an obit that appeared in the Scottish edition of The Times of London.
But the truth is, I haven’t felt capable of putting fingers to keyboard about Janis until now. It’s taken me a month to detach enough from mourning her to be able to write something that might capture a modest portion of her strong, vibrant character – her forthright grittiness and sharp, sometimes scabrous wit; her determination and dedication to dance and culture and – how else to say it? – living, and her warmth.
Janis was a passionate, feisty woman. When I first used the latter adjective on her she jokingly – and challengingly, too, as was her nature – asked, ‘Are you calling me a bitch?’ I loved the challenge of Janis. She knew how much I admired her spirit and drive. That, along with her gift for dancing and making dances, made her someone you want to champion. She deserved it.
I first laid eyes on Janis at Dance Base, Scotland’s national dance centre, probably about a decade and a half ago. She was performing a self-created solo called ‘Blue,’ and from my front row seat, I distinctly remember observing her bare feet and thinking how articulate and expressive they were. Of course, a plethora of other things were going on in the rest of her body, but this was a small but telling detail I fixated upon with pleasure. We spoke afterward in a reception area the venue provided for artists and press. Sidling up to her, I said, ‘I’ve just gotta tell you that you’ve got beautiful feet.’ The comeback was quick: ‘If you think mine are good, you should see my husband’s.’
From then on Clive Andrews, also a performer (of physical theatre and clowning), became identified between us as ‘The Man with the Feet.’ Pretty soon I had a nickname too: Avo, short for avocado and derived from my desire to advocate on Janis’ behalf within the dance industry in whatever ways I could. I talked and wrote about her and, in 2008, I even guested in one of her works.
Featuring a cast of British and Chinese dancers (because Janis maintained close creative links to Asia, and China in particular), and focusing on the acts of being and watching, ‘Enclosure 44 – Humans’ was set in an enclosure in the Edinburgh Zoo. As if that wasn’t enough of an overturning of artistic conventions and expectations, she had the brilliant notion to invite members of the press to be a part of the performance itself. I wasn’t the only one who took her up on the offer. What it entailed, for me, was improvising for an hour or two with the dancers while being gawped at by whoever happened to pass by the open-air, bona fide animal enclosure we inhabited. As a collective exercise in behavioural discovery that left me with some unforgettable sensations, ‘Enclosure 44’ was serious fun.
It might be worth noting that, due in part to what she saw as a lack of sufficient support from the powers that be, Janis subsequently considered relinquishing choreography in favour of the study of primates. (She was, no surprise, a big fan of the gynecocratic society of the bonobos.) But she didn’t give up, and her persistence paid off.
Inevitably now, perhaps, the pinnacle of Janis’ creative output is likely to be deemed what turned out to be her last work, POP-UP Duets (Fragments of Love). This gorgeous quartet premiered in 2016 at the National Museum of Scotland during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. It returned to the same location – in a slightly revamped form – this past August (not long after Janis entered the Marie Curie hospice). Lasting about 45 minutes, and presented free of charge for the benefit of whoever chances upon it, ‘POP-UP Duets’ is a beautiful, sophisticated yet utterly accessible series of brief encounters between two people in a public space.
Reviewing the work for The Times of London, I called it ‘refreshingly unaffected…romantic, playful and always well-crafted. As the title suggests, Claxton’s work is designed to catch spectators unawares. Such naturalness is a hallmark of POP-UP Duets. Her cast is obviously highly trained, but nothing they do feels forced or intimidatingly technical. Claxton knows how to bring out their innately human qualities…What becomes increasingly apparent as the piece progresses is the ability of Claxton’s dancers to maintain strong and even intimate connections while under potentially distracting public scrutiny.’
The reworked version of ‘POP-UP Duets’ that I saw in Edinburgh this summer was, if anything, even more quietly breathtaking than in its original incarnation, and undeniably poignant. But then I was watching it with the knowledge that Janis didn’t have that much time left on earth. The medication she’d been taking wasn’t working. The bittersweet irony is that Janis’ illness (diagnosed last spring) cropped up just as her international career was truly taking off. This year ‘POP-UP Duets’ has been presented in Singapore, Sweden, Germany, Spain, and New York as well as, to quote a posthumous press release (see below), in ‘galleries, streets, courtyards and foyers across Scotland and the UK.’ Janis was especially pleased that the work has been invited to America’s oldest dance festival, Jacob’s Pillow. Health concerns vetoed her ability to accompany the show on tour, although thanks to social media she made it seem as if she was in each location. As, indeed, she was, although in the bodies of others rather than her own.
Janis chose to keep pretty quiet about the cancer. I’d estimate that a couple of dozen close friends and colleagues knew she was ill and then, eventually, dying. She was a fighter, although when I mentioned that to her during a final two hours with her at the Marie Curie hospice, she simply said, ‘I don’t wanna fight anymore.’ It was a privilege to be able to spend that time with her before plunging back into the fray of the Fringe. It was something I ‘had’ to do, and she felt likewise. We had a bond, an understanding, a kinship, and that will endure. When I told her how much seeing ‘POP-UP Duets’ again meant to me, her answer was just right: ‘It’s all about love.’
Janis Claxton - (1964-2018)
Donald Hutera writes about dance and the arts for The Times of London and many other publications and websites.