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By Kate Lydon
The actress explores her dance roots.
At Performance Space 122, Claire Danes twists her body into tangled shapes and struggles on the floor. She uses her arms to belly crawl, her legs following lifeless behind her. Her snake-like spine undulates as she hangs over her legs and forces them to move beneath her.
“Make no mistake. She is a dancer,” wrote Deborah Jowitt in The Village Voice about Danes’ performance in Christina Olson: American Model. In an hour-long solo choreographed for her by Tamar Rogoff, Danes dances the devastating story of a woman slowly becoming crippled by polio. The piece is inspired by the famous Andrew Wyeth painting, Christina’s World. At the end, Danes bursts into an uninhibited and skillful improvisation, releasing the torment of her character’s disease.
Of course, Danes is an actress first. She has appeared in over 20 movies including Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet and Steve Martin’s Shopgirl, and she played the lead character in the ’90s cult classic television series, My So-Called Life.
Danes, 26, grew up in New York City’s Soho district. She began taking dance lessons with Ellen Robbins at Dance Theater Workshop when she was 6 and continued until age 14, when she went to Hollywood.
During her time with Robbins, Danes learned a balance of dance technique, improvisation, and choreography. “She was a risk taker and improvised full blast,” says Robbins. “She was also a terrific choreographer.”
Robbins remembers Danes creating solos with varied dramatic subject matter. She danced a shipwreck, a moth to a flame, and a piece that was almost like a Beckett play—she dragged out a heavy sack, sat on it, and rolled off it. “She was fully engaged in every aspect—emotionally and physically. She would do extraordinary things,” says Robbins, who is known as a master teacher of children. “My students are fluent in movement as a language and Claire was particularly so.”
In 2004, after being away from dance for 10 years, Danes realized that she missed it. Working with Rogoff brought her back to P.S. 122, where she had performed as a child.
Dance Magazine’s Kate Lydon sat down with Danes during her holiday break from shooting The Flock with Richard Gere.
What did you perform at P.S. 122 when you were a child?
Choreographers looking for young talent used to come to Ellen’s classes and “poach.” I was always really hammy and conspicuous so I would get chosen a lot. I did a few performances at P.S. 122.
What made you want to start dancing again?
I saw my close friend Ariel Rogoff perform in a dance performance a couple years ago and was moved and inspired by it, and I started pining for it myself. I said this to Ariel and she told her mom, Tamar Rogoff. Tamar suggested I take her dance classes. Later she said she would love to make a 10-minute dance for me that I could perform for family and friends. I am typically pretty extreme so I immediately said, “No, no, no, let’s really perform something,” having no idea of what that meant or what it would result in.
What was the rehearsal process like?
It was personal, exploratory, and unfocused for a long time before it started to take a more concrete shape.We started working together by using a technique called Authentic Movement. I am not sure if we were true to it exactly, but we riffed on that idea for months. One of us would close our eyes and move in whatever way we felt compelled to for about three or four minutes. The other person would keep time, watch, and write a stream of consciousness. The writer would call time and the dancer would freeze. Then the writer would assume the final position of the dancer—we would swap. It was a way for us to introduce ourselves to each other as movers, thinkers, and creative people. It was wild because common motifs and themes would appear.
How did the idea of the Wyeth painting come up?
Tamar came up with the image of Christina’s World. It was suddenly very vivid to her. Christina’s long spine reminded her of mine. It was her design, her movement, and I interpreted it. I much prefer to be in the service of somebody else’s imagination. I don’t need to author anything. I just like to make it pop.
How long did you and Rogoff work together?
About a year incrementally. I would leave to do different projects—a movie or press—but we were diligent. We worked often, long, and hard. It was one of the most exciting endeavors of my life.
Why is that?
I was thrilled to rediscover my body as a grown-up. Tamar has a thorough, idiosyncratic approach to dance that has to do with intention and origin of movement. Also it was so much about my beginnings. I have known Tamar since I was 9. She suggested me to the director of my first movie, a student film when I was 11. Her daughter, Ariel, was my first best friend. Dance was my first experience onstage, and P.S. 122 was the first place I ever performed.
Can you tell me about Tamar’s approach?
It is absolutely specific about where the gesture is coming from. I am not just moving my arm, but my collarbone is moving towards my right pinky. She would have me do exercises that isolate three different body parts—the more particular and strange the better. I would choose my eyelashes, the back of my left knee, and my chin or the inside of my elbow, and then I would have to create a dance with those parts. I have a much more dynamic or three-dimensional sense of my body now. In class she would have us dance with the backs of our bodies as if they were the front. Why does the back matter! Who sees the back! Well, everyone. That was really mind blowing.
So when you performed Christina Olson last September, you hadn’t performed onstage since you were a child. What was that like?
Horrifying. Terrifying. I was not afraid through the entire process of developing the piece. I would get anxious or self-conscious, but Tamar created such a protected environment and I trusted her so implicitly that I never felt ridiculed or harshly judged, only encouraged to grow. It was a real shock when I accepted that we were actually going to be sharing it with other people. It felt like a secret.
It seems risky…
People kept saying that. They said, “Wow, this is brave of you,” and “That’s ballsy.” I would think yeah, but I’m doing it with Tamar and she’s like my mom. I knew that I needed to perform it because it wouldn’t have existed otherwise. It wasn’t until opening night when I was looking at the little red light blinking [on the video camera] that I started thinking: “Oh my God; this is suicide and a dire mistake.” Then all the reverberations of “You’re so brave,” started throbbing and I couldn’t breathe. But I did it. I stepped out there, committed, and got through it.
I heard the second show was difficult. Tell me about it.
It was catastrophic! I fell. I lost my focus. It was dreadful. It was visibly not as good as the first night. And I learned [the second performance] is like a thing. Nobody told me! I was not braced for that. It is risky. There’s a reason to be nervous because it is unpredictable.
Did you read any reviews?
I didn’t. I never identified myself as a dancer, even though I had been dancing more than any other thing for a year and a half. I kept saying I dance but I’m not a dancer. I wasn’t interested in people’s evaluation of how good a dancer I would be. My identity is much more heavily informed by acting, and I felt buffered by that.
Does dance inform your acting?
I definitely think it does, whether I am conscious of it or not. When you become aware of your body, it’s impossible to forget. I can tell which actors have a background in dance. Sarah Jessica Parker dances in her acting. Kevin Bacon, too. Once it’s been activated, it continues to operate unconsciously. It is an enormous resource.
There are a couple scenes in My So-Called Life where you danced. Did you have anything to do with that decision?
Yes, I was supposed to do something like cartwheels and I did the equivalent, which was dancing. I don’t think anyone expected it to happen, but they kept it.
You mentioned earlier that it is much easier for you to improvise in dance than in acting. Can you explain that?
I liked improvising when I was studying acting. It involves intuition, but it is not strictly intuitive the way it can be in dance. Ellen would have us choreograph a piece at the end of the year, and most people actually choreographed it. But I would do the first 30 seconds and then make it up. I liked the thrill of making it up on the spot.
Do you ever go to dance performances in the city?
Yes. One of the most exciting days of the last year—I was so happy on this day—Ariel and I came to DTW to see one of Ellen’s performances with her kids. They were so good—funny, ironic, soulful, loose, and purposive. We were swimming in a pool of nostalgia. During the intermission everyone from the audience was invited to dance onstage and we were doing these really familiar sequences with Ellen. I was elated. I skipped home, not literally, but in the elevator ride up to my loft, I was dancing. I thought, what is this about? Wow, I really am connected to this.