Choreographer and teacher who won Herald Angel for innovative zoo project

Born: October 6, 1964;

Died: September 7, 2018

THE news of the death of Janis Claxton, who has aged 53, has not only saddened but shocked and surprised dance communities across the globe. Very few people knew she was ill at all – she was diagnosed with lung cancer in the spring – and even fewer were aware that, by the summer when her company was on tour performing POP UP Duets (Fragments of Love), she was being cared for in an Edinburgh hospice.

Somehow, this reclusive facade fits perfectly with the energising, indefatigable woman who gave herself so unstintingly to dance. Even when adversity – in the shape of unresponsive funders or venue programmers – frustrated her artistic ambitions, Claxton squared up to disappointments by throwing herself into other projects, teaching workshops or helping to produce other people’s work. The dance had to come first, always: any news about her failing health could not – would not – be allowed to distract attention from the superlative-laden trail that POP UP Duets was blazing across America, Asia, and Europe.

This singular focus and sense of purpose was kindled deep inside Claxton at the age of only three when, in her home town of Brisbane, she stepped into her first ever dance class. Years later, she recalled how that moment affected her, saying: “Dance was my connection with my spirit. When I was very young I had a deep and conscious understanding that dance was a spiritual path, a healing tool.”

That passion and immersive belief never left her. She used it to inspire students in classes at home and abroad – one hailed her as a “fire-starter, who lights you up” – and she shared that vitality with her own dancers when setting them brave new creative challenges.

Enclosure 44 - Humans (August 2008) was one such visionary adventure. Claxton had been scrupulously researching primate behaviour. At the same time, she was mulling over our own close kin-ship to those primates. She melded these strands together in a boundary-breaking durational piece at Edinburgh Zoo, housing her dancers in an open-air enclosure where, like other nearby primates, they were in full view of the visiting public. The premiere opened on one of the wettest days of the entire Edinburgh Fringe. The performers, who weren’t allowed to use speech or sign language, huddled together for warmth, and as we stared at them, they stared back.The curious gaze was mutual, reciprocal and prompted uneasy, questioning thoughts as to who was watching who – who was the audience? who the performer? Enclosure 44 - Humans received a Herald Angel Award for its multi-faceted innovation, intellectual chutzpah and willingness to have fun with serious issues. A series of related works followed: Torque (2008), Human Animal Beijing (2009), Human Animal Shanghai / Scotland (2010), Humanimalia (2011) and Enclosure 99 –Humans (2011).

In location after location, Claxton noted, in her own vivid writings, how the performance was taking dance to the public in a massive way. Yet another aspirational seed was planted: in August 2016 it would become POP UP Duets (Fragments of Love), eight brief encounters that made us party to romantic goings on in between the exhibits in the National Museum of Scotland. Claxton’s choreographies embraced larky flirtations, teasing hook-ups, and the tensions and hidden yearnings in a same-sex relationship between two men. Members of the public suddenly found themselves face to face with dancers whose shared glances and lissom, intertwining limbs spoke, through dance, of urgent emotions.

Before achieving that hugely critical and popular success on the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016, Claxton had – typically – been ferociously busy elsewhere. In 2013 she created SC2ENE, a cultural exchange network that focussed on linking UK and China’s creative and innovation sectors – soon she would be spending a third of each year in China where, according to Alison Friedman of Ping Pong Productions in Beijing, “she navigated the complexities and nuances of China with humour and sensitivity”.

Claxton’s drive to make dance happen took her globe-trotting beyond her adopted country, Scotland, to Australia, New Zealand, USA, Japan, Taiwan, India, Spain and the Netherlands. Her passion for prising dance out of conventional spaces, revealing it to the ‘accidental audience’ saw her company perform in zoos, parks, museums and galleries.

Of late, this context was where POP Up Duets proved a personal triumph for her. During the summer Janis Claxton Dance took the piece to Jacob’s Pillow Dance, the longest-running dance festival in the United States. It was only the second time a Scottish company had been invited. If this accolade, and those that followed wherever POP UP Duets appeared,were proof positive that Claxton had achieved the kudos she richly deserved there was still one unresolved issue that irked her inner warrior: gender equality across the arts.

In August this year, The Herald awarded Claxton our ArchAngel for her outstanding contribution to dance on the Edinburgh Fringe. By then, she was too ill to attend in person but sent a message that was a selfless rallying cry. She said: “Female choreographers need more opportunities with absolutely no excuses whatsoever. 50/50 programming – we are waiting here in the wings, we are brilliant and we deserve our time now.” It is especially cruel that – just as POP UP Duets (Fragments of Love) is touring to global acclaim – her own time has sadly been cut short.

Janis Claxton is survived by her husband Clive Andrews and her son Marlin Andrews.