Janis Claxton on Humanimalia

Contemporary choreographer <strong>Janis Claxton</strong> has devised new methods of communication through dance – taking its cue from the Great Apes

Feature by Gareth K Vile | 01 Mar 2011

Contemporary dance is often regarded as a marginal interest. Often running headlong into the territory of performance art, it inspires a select and enthusiastic audience. Watching Janis Claxton Dance rehearsing Humanimalia, however, suggests that contemporary can be both immediately accessible and intelligent. Based on artistic director Janis Claxton's investigations into primate behaviour – which includes serious academic study – Humanimalia uses animal movement to develop an original choreographic vocabulary.

"I started studying animal behaviour influence on movement and choreography because I was taking students to zoos, and noticing that this was a big difference in their movements after watching the animals, particularly the primates." Claxton begins. "This led me to study primate behaviour – humans being a primate – and particularly the great apes."

Although contemporary dance evolved against ballet's particular rigour and style, it has increasingly developed its own discipline and recognised techniques. Claxton's vision is to find a new foundation, which both allows her to escape from predictable choreography and articulate ideas about human relationships through movement.

"We started to investigate how gesture speaks across species, not just human but the connections between us and other primates," she continues. From her Enclosure 44, a successful entry in the 2008 Edinburgh Fringe, Claxton has continued to analyse the links between human and great ape. In rehearsal, Humanimalia uses the groupings and conduct of the apes as a basis for an extended choreography.

Yet Claxton rejects the simplest adaptation of primate behaviour into dance. "We are not interested in imitating primates: they do it much better than us!" She elaborates: "The great apes communicate primarily through the body: their vocal range is way less than their physical range. With dancers, it is a similar thing. Some of us dancers can talk a lot, but more dancers are more comfortable communicating through their bodies. And a dancer is able to communicate physically much more than the general population."

This connection, between humans and animals, and then great apes and dancers inspired Claxton to deepen her research. Rather than seeking out specific dance-like movements in primates, she considered all of their movement as dance. "The way that they use space, they scatter, then form clumps: it's like a choreography unto itself."

As even a brief visit to her studio reveals, Claxton has used these observations to feed a process that escapes from the repetition of existing choreographic repertoires. "We have used the idiosyncrasies of other primates to influence our own movement," she explains. "Different species have different variation of gesture. All chimpanzees do these certain gestures, but they develop idiosyncratic ones as well, which is the same for dance. We learn this basic form of dance, this ground rule, and then we make idiosyncratic movement." In applying this, Claxton has made something unique: "The movement repertoire is definitely not a universal dance language!"

On one level, Humanimalia is a formal experiment that uses scientific research to expand the possibilities of contemporary dance: on another, it investigates the nature of group politics in a manner both abstract and immediate. But perhaps more than this, it contains difficult ideas in an entertaining and accessible format.


Touring nationwide from 4 Mar. See www.janisclaxton.com for further details