Pull/Drift: An Interview with Clarissa Stowell Gregory by Cara Ober

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On Sunday, September 8, Clarissa Stowell Gregory and Joshua Wade Smith will collaborate in dance and sculpture for a one-day-only site-specific performance involving: water, woods and raft.

The performance, titled Pull/Drift will be performed at Daniels Area in the Patapsco Valley State Park and will explore ritual, cycle of life, transfers of power, and the relationship between humans and nature. For those without cars, transportation will be provided from Penn Station. More info on that here.

Cara: After watching the Pull/Drift “making of” video, I will admit I’m intrigued. How did you decide upon the Patapsco Valley State Park, Daniels Area as the location for your performance? What is the significance of the place? What unique landscape elements does it offer to your performance and sculpture?

Clarissa: Back in February, 2013, when discussing potential sites, Joshua and I thought we could share Pull / Drift at Robert E. Lee Park, because it’s more accessible to a majority of Baltimoreans. I contacted the lead park ranger as well as the Robert E. Lee Park Nature Council and gained permission to utilize the park for this particular performance. However, after further development and query on the part of the council, it became clear to us that we may not have the flexibility and regular access to the water we needed in order to accomplish our idea. This resulted in more scouting. I explored Gwynn Falls Leakin Park, but the creek posed serious limitations. Then I discovered Daniels Area, a small northern nook of Patapsco Valley State Park. As soon as I arrived at the site and wandered the grounds, I knew it was what we were looking for, so I immediately called Joshua expressing excitement for having found the magic spot.

Daniels Area has many aspects I find appealing and appropriate for Pull / Drift: 1)there are several dirt footpaths that come in and out of the woods and intersect each other – in the choreography, I want the dancers to simply appear, emerge from the forest, and the footpaths lend themselves to this, 2)the footpaths all lead to a shallow creek that runs into Patapsco River – this was great for our assemblage section, where we wade in the water and prepare the sculpture for send off, 3)the water is slow-moving and deep enough for us to float the raft – it’s also very important that Daniels Area permits swimming (Robert E. Lee’s water is reserved for just dogs, no human swimming), 4)there are several appealing perspectives of Patapsco walking along the footpaths, road and walkways above the dam – this is conducive for our audience members who will be actively moving in order to see us from new perspectives and new sites, 5)there is a picnic area and a large grass patch available for park-goers – both of which I viewed as opportunities for performance and post-performance refreshments, 6)and finally, I am attracted to the entire set-up of Daniels Area: it is tucked away, on a dead-end road (the only other structures being the Gary Memorial United Methodist Church and a welding company), and I love the fact that there are always more people walking along the road than there are cars. In short, there’s much more green, much less urban, much more freedom to experience the natural landscape, and much less structure and formality about entering the park.

Cara: You did a MICA performance of Pull/Drift on July 18 at Cohen Plaza, as part of Artscape’s Semi-Finalist Exhibition. How did it go? How was the performance different based on this location? 

Clarissa: I was a 2013 Sondheim Semi-Finalist and was prepared to show my own artwork at MICA for the exhibition, but as we got closer to the July opening date, I thought to myself: all I’ve been consumed with over the past several months is Pull / Drift . . . is there a way I could incorporate this into my personal work, while acknowledging the many contributors to this project? After consulting Joshua, then Carr Kizzier, our main videographer at the time, and Kim Domanski, the curator for the Semi-Finals Exhibition, I devised a plan to share a collection of my biomorphic drawings, our promotion video (edited by Maggie Schneider), and “draft 1” performance of Pull / Drift. I also felt the need to create a visual connection from my graphite drawings to the video, so I taught myself to rotoscope and created a short drawing animation inspired by Carr’s dance rehearsal footage.

Our performance on the front lawn of MICA coincided with the Semi-Finalist art opening and included a several dancers featured in the video and a few new dancers who joined Pull / Drift late May. I anticipated our September performance of Pull / Drift to be a large-scale, multi-faceted, natural setting that would be challenging from many angles – one being, getting an audience to travel outside the city to see art. Come June, seeing as we didn’t have the completed sculpture/raft, and therefore no raft choreography (and no body of water at MICA), I realized I had accumulated a plenty of ground choreography including collective group movement and duets.  I saw the performance at MICA as an opportunity to solidify the choreography I had created thus far, get my dancers performance-ready, share the work with a different audience, and test the choreography in an urban, outdoor space within a set grass perimeter.

The day of our MICA performance was tough. It rained hard from about 4:45 – 5:10pm (performance was scheduled for 6pm), so at 5:15pm I was coordinating with the events manager, Anne South, about alternative performance sites, such as the atrium in the Brown Building. At 5:30pm my dancers arrived and we discussed the plusses and minuses of dancing inside on an unfamiliar, cement footprint­­ vs. dancing outside on wet, perhaps muddy, slippery grass, not knowing if it would rain again . . . Oh, and it was perhaps 110 degrees? My dancers and I decided we’d go with what we knew and had rehearsed with and crossed our fingers for no more rain. For an opening of the Sondheim Semi-Finals, it was a small, but attentive crowd. Everyone was sweating without effort. In short, we all – dancers and audience – survived the heat and then some! I’m so glad we could share the work as part of the opening, but I’m really looking forward to sharing Pull / Drift in its intended destination: Daniels Area.

Cara: How did you, a choreographer and dancer, and your collaborating partner, Joshua Wade Smith, a sculptor, come to work together on this project? How has the collaboration changed your working and thinking?

Clarissa: We both went to Mount Royal School of Art, MICA’s interdisciplinary graduate art program. I graduated in 2009 and Joshua in 2010. I remember the first time I saw Joshua’s work on the ground floor of what was called the Bank Building at the time. He had an installation sprawling throughout a project room. I was intrigued by the materials and the suspension. As I recall, he had colorful twine winding its way through the air, bicycle parts strewn about, pieces that looked as though they were imploding or exploding from the wall . . . Meanwhile, I was making intimate installations and animations of my own, inspired by the landscape of Northern Minnesota and the shores of Lake Superior.

When we had an overlap year in Grad. School, I recall staying after in his studio following a group critique. I believe he had a table flipped upside-down, cement blocks, colorful rope, a stairway that led to nowhere, and maps and photos on the wall. I remember finding his work at once perplexing and engaging. I believe I asked him right then and there if it was a requirement for all his work to be labor intensive and painful or at least physically challenging to accomplish. I think he smirked and said yes, but he can confirm that. Anyhow, I admired and was struck by the physicality of his work, the fact that it was anything but stable, static, sculpture that existed in one form in one space. I love how he incorporated his own athletic body (he’s a bicyclist) into his work and how the installation and the process of building it was just as much a part of the work as was the final display.

Given the history, it wasn’t surprising that I thought it a good idea when Joshua approached me more than two years ago about incorporating dance into his sculpture. He knew of Effervescent Collective and had seen at least one performance of ours at the Lumber Haus (old studio). It wasn’t until he was ready to de-install his work at Gallery 4, about two years ago, that I said I’d like to experiment moving on/with some of his sculpture. In the fall of 2012 I proposed it to Effervescent Collective and Joshua and I said we would re-engage the conversation January 2013, when we both had a window for beginning new projects. As it turns out, I was wrapping up two exhibitions of my drawings, dioramas and animations for Goucher College and Arlington Arts Center, plus choreographing a solo in a boxing ring to Jimmy Joe Roche’s synthesized music all through mid-February, so we didn’t meet until the end of February. We quickly realized if we were going to work together we had to build with each other in mind: I build choreography with Joshua’s sculpture in mind, and Joshua build sculpture with dancers in mind.


As to how the collaboration has changed my working and thinking, I am proud to say that I would never have come up with Pull / Drift on my own. I would never have had the guts or the insanity to do something like 1)choreograph a 30-40 minute performance work 2)dance on a raft that was built by someone who had never created a floating platform before 3)create not only a site-specific work, but one that’s outdoors 4)coordinate with 10+ dancers, three photo/videographers, two musicians, multiple park rangers, church-goers (Gary Memorial Methodist Church), and regularly interact with the general public – park people including swimmers, dog-walkers, kayakers, horse-back riders etc.

To be quite frank, I had no idea (I had a sense intellectually, but not emotionally and physically) what we were getting into until we were up to our elbows in it! I have had many sleepless nights, but now that we’ve almost arrived, I am so happy we created a project that I think everyone will agree is a one-of-its-kind. I believe people will get a positive, moving experience out of any one of the aspects we’re addressing: nature, water, an outdoor performance, seeing dancers interact with unexpected sculpture, traveling to a non-traditional venue out in the country…

In the early stages of creation, I actually anticipated more Effervescent Dancers being available and present to assist with special choreographic segments and fulfill various tasks along the way, but we are an amoeba crew, an ever-expanding, ever-evolving collection of movers, all juggling our own projects, schedules and goals – all of us work full-time whilst pursuing personal and shared artistic projects.

Well, when it came right down to it – to Pull / Drift – I realized if I wanted it to exist, to happen at all, it was going to be up to just me to play the role of “director of all moving parts and people” and choreograph the work. And I would leave it up to Joshua to solve the floating raft part. (I should also say that I was no stranger to working with leading large groups of people, however, I had never pursued this for my personal artwork. Before I was 20, I directed children’s theatre for three summers in my hometown Portage, Wisconsin. I attended a small liberal arts school in Michigan with a theatre-acting scholarship, where I also danced in a modern dance company and made large-scale figurative drawings and paintings. And I’m currently going on my fifth year of teaching studio art courses at the college level.)

It’s hard to say “looking back on the experience,” since we still have one final week of rehearsals, plus a performance that still needs performing, but I can say I am really proud of the work we made thus far and proud of the contributions everyone shared to help make this crazy vision we had, come into focus.


Cara: In the video Josh cites several art historical examples of collaborations between performance and Minimalist sculpture from the 60’s, with Merce Cunningham and John Cage as a solid example for what you two are doing together … Josh also said he wants to “open up a vocabulary of movement and then work in response to that.” For this collaboration to work, how important is choreography vs spontaneity? How do you use minimal sculptural forms to influence the movement in this piece?

Clarissa: In a piece like Pull / Drift that has so many unexpected elements: the weather (rain, wind), the temperature of the air and the water, the lighting (cloudy, full sun) the travel and set-up labor, our collective energy and emotional states, the coordination required…it was very important to me to have the majority of the work choreographed, so as to avoid disaster, fatigue, discomfort or fear of all things unfamiliar. However, one of my favorite sections is the duets, in which each set of partners determines his/her own pace, quality and order of choreographic passages and this lends itself to spontaneity. And I can safely say that what we have created is largely experimental, unpredictable, and fresh in so many directions – so I see that as having a close relationship to improvisation, a similar seed of spontaneity.

Because we received the sculpture at various stages and not altogether finished at one point in time until this past month (For the majority of our working time we had our five 2 x 8” boards, about 40 lbs each?), I did a lot of brainstorming beyond the sculpture and held movement labs or workshops, in which I invited the dancers to explore the give and take of their own weight and their partners weight. If we had had the entire sculpture completed day 1, I wouldn’t have all the essential collective movement and partnering choreography that I believe grounds the work. My dancers helped in molding and shaping these sections and I owe them thanks for willfully sharing in the experimentation. And I owe a big thanks to the dancers with whom I’ve worked the longest – six continuous months now, an average of 4 hours a week (Jenny Berkowitz, Erin Reid, Christine Stiver, and Amy Reid).

When it came time to lifting and maneuvering the unwieldy boards, I wanted to play with suspension, the sensation of floating, undulating, reflective of water moving or wind blowing. In essence, making this heavy, flat object appear to be a natural extension of our body or the landscape and the elements. At the same time, I wanted our lifting of the boards to be inspired by mechanical operations or systems such as the assembly line or the unanimous laboring required to build architecture or something unnamable. Collective human patterns, such as parades and marching bands, and collective animal patterns, such as bird formations and schools of fish, inspired key choreographic passages. In addition, movement was determined by the unique opportunity to work with sculptural props.

The weight and length of the boards were really responsible for what was possible and what was out of reach. I love the power of the boards, the strength and coordination that’s required to maneuver them and I equally love how we can balance the utilitarian, repetitive movement with the more organic, earthy movement. The barrels and the raft came together in our final weeks. The barrels and assemblage sections were fun experiments under Lily Kind’s direction. And the raft movement came from Jenny Berkowitz’ yogi knowledge base.

Cara: How did you come to work with Effervescent Collective? How has their participation affected the Pull/Drift performance?

Clarissa: I joined Effervescent Collective (EC) in November of 2010. I had watched a performance of theirs Pluto Dances a few months prior and I was very attracted to their approach to movement and collaboration with musicians. Following the performance I knew I wanted to be in a group like this, so I began attending Sunday free classes.

My experience with Effervescent and its many valuable members both near and now far away from Baltimore, have shaped my approach to movement, my idea of what’s possible in the realm of performance and collaboration. This is Rod Hamilton’s third time working with us – the first being Turn Into, a three-stage, three-part choreographed & three-part musician extravaganza originally proposed by Tiffany Seal; the second being We Were Once and Still Are choreographed by Jenny Berkowitz and danced by myself, Jenny, and Brittany Grant – so relationships have developed and been nurtured over the years in large-scale productions and more intimate ones. When Lily Kind (director of EC) heard my project proposal along with our current members back in November 2012, she also took a chance on me, when my vision was still raw and undefined, so she’s to thank for supporting and helping to make the project possible.

Beyond EC, I reached out to the community at large when it was clear I didn’t have enough bodies for my work. A great number of enthusiastic performers/dancers/movers showed up for our “open call” and I’m thankful I have had the experience of working with these talented folks.

Video: Pull / Drift from Maggie Schneider on Vimeo.

For more information and driving directions, click to visit Effervescent Collective’s web page.


dancers featured in photos:
foreground: Sarah Fask(left) & Hannah Friedland;
background: Christine Stiver(left) & Amy Reid
left to right: Clarissa Gregory, Jenny Berkowitz, Lily Susskind
foreground to background:
Hannah Friedland, Sarah Fask, Christine Stiver, Clarissa Gregory, Corey Hennessey, Jenny Berkowitz, Erin Reid
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