Obituary: Janis Claxton, visionary Edinburgh-based Australian dancer, choreographer and activist

Dancer, choreographer and activist Janis Claxton has died at the age of 53
Dancer, choreographer and activist Janis Claxton has died at the age of 53
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Janis Claxton, dancer. Born: Brisbane, Australia, 6 October, 1964 in Brisbane, Australia. Died: 7 September, 2018, in Edinburgh aged 53

Janis Claxton was an Australian dancer, choreographer, producer and activist who had made Edinburgh her home since 2005. Despite a lifelong and inspirational career as a dance teacher and educator of community groups and professional performers, it was in Scotland that her practice as a choreographer and producer bore the most fruit, her work with her own company Janis Claxton Dance bringing her local and international acclaim.

The work which gave Claxton a great deal of initial attention was 2008’s Enclosure 44 Humans, a site-specific piece performed during the Edinburgh Fringe at the city’s zoo. Staged inside an animal enclosure, with the audience viewing through glass, the work saw a team of five dancers traverse the space with a choreographed set of movements which mimicked the principles of primate behaviour and movement; a subject which Claxton had studied through a Masters degree at Edinburgh University.

Enclosure 44 Humans won a Herald Angel award, and was followed by 2010/11’s touring version Human Animal, which was performed inside a Perspex box sited in galleries, parks and other public spaces, and Enclosure 99 Humans (2011), a return to Edinburgh Zoo and the Fringe with dancers from the UK and China.

As the founder of the SC2ENE Cultural Exchange Network and Scotland’s representative at the 2010 World Expo Shanghai, the latter country was of huge fascination to Claxton. She also worked with dancers from China in Chaos & Contingency (2013), a promenade dance piece created for Edinburgh International Science Festival and staged at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. Using mathematical patterns as the basis for its choreography, the work was devised in collaboration with Professor David McCarthy of Edinburgh University.

Claxton’s return to the grand hall of the National Museum of Scotland during 2016’s Edinburgh Fringe gave her arguably the biggest success story of her career, and certainly the piece which best merged her twin loves for skilled professional practice and dance as a force for community empowerment. POP-UP Duets (Fragments of Love) is a series of delicate, sensual dances between male and female dancers, only five minutes each in length staged in a location where members of the public will stumble upon them in passing, hence becoming “the accidental audience,” as described by Claxton.

The concept of POP-UP Duets was a reimagining of high-quality dance performance which brings dance to the public as an unexpected moment of beauty within their day. With a soundtrack by Pippa Murphy and vocalist Kathryn Joseph, it has since been performed at the prestigious Jacob’s Pillow dance festival in the United States (the first work by a Scottish company to have appeared there since 1954), and in Singapore, Taiwan, Sweden and around Scotland and the UK.

Well-known and highly-regarded for her work within the Scottish theatrical community, Claxton also worked as a movement director for companies including Lung Ha’s and the National Theatre of Scotland. Her work was seen in the NTS’ 2017 Fringe hit Adam, whose director Cora Bissett described her as a “visionary choreographer and fiercely relentless in her fight for women’s representation in the dance world – I had enormous respect for her.”

Off the stage, this latter aspect was an important part of who Claxton was for those who knew her both personally and professionally. Aware of and dismayed by the lack of female representation in dance choreography roles – particularly in light of the greater proportion of trained female dancers in the industry compared to male – she was an activist for change , advocating for fairness through what she described as 50/50 programming between male and female

In Australia she is highly regarded for her teaching work within the indigenous dance sector and will be honoured with a memorial event at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum later this year.

Those who knew her say Claxton was a bright, dynamic, unforgettable personality of unflinching honesty; it was sharp, but it would help shine a light on what the subject really needed to see, whether they were her friend or her student. “She was the furthest thing from a bullshit artist you can imagine,” says Skye Reynolds, Claxton’s old friend from Australia, also a performer and Scottish emigre. “She was incredibly generous, thoughtful and supportive; very brave and hysterically funny. She didn’t give up and she didn’t give up saying how it was, and that – combined with her talent – is how she got to where she was.”

Janis Claxton was born in Brisbane, Australia, in 1964, to Colin, a GP, and Iris Claxton, the receptionist at the surgery where her husband worked. She had three siblings, brothers Greg and Brett and sister Lurlene, and was pre-deceased by her parents and sister. Claxton was three years old when Lurlene attended dance classes and she insisted she attend too, and she fell in love with it from this point on. Entrepreneurial from a young age, she set up and earned a living from her own dance classes as a teenager, then studied for a BA in dance in Brisbane.

Moving to Sydney after graduation, she immersed herself in all forms of body training, including kung fu, and taught and performed as a dancer, including for the city’s One Extra Dance Theatre. She travelled extensively during her twenties, working with two great influences and mentors through Michael Parmenter’s Commotion Company in New Zealand and Erick Hawkins’ Dance Company in New York. She also lived in Japan where she studied butoh dance and spent time in Paris.

Back in Sydney by the end of her twenties, Claxton met Clive Andrews, an Englishman and a fellow physical performer, and the pair became a couple. They moved to the UK together in 2000, initially to Bristol – where they married the same year – and then to Edinburgh in 2005, where they found opportunities for artistic practice much greater. Andrews’ own popular physical comedy show for young audiences, Jango Starr: One Man Shoe, was produced by Claxton.

She will be remembered as a woman who, in her spare time, loved cooking, cinema, shopping (particularly for what she called “the best fakes” in China), socialising with friends, and as someone who valued precision and quality in her home environment as well in her choreography. Above all, say those who knew her, she was someone who viewed dance - whether as a viewer or a participant - not just as an entertainment, but as a transformative and empowering endeavour for all.

Diagnosed with lung cancer in the spring, Janis Claxton died at the Marie Curie Hospice in Edinburgh, and is survived by her husband Clive Andrews and son Marlin Andrews. POP-UP Duets will be performed at the Guggenheim in Bilbao in November, and will tour again in 2019.

DAVID POLLOCK