Gill Clarke, who has died of cancer aged 56, was one of the foremost contemporary dancers of her generation. She was also a renowned teacher and a tireless advocate for the independent dance sector – the world of freelance dancers and choreographers working outside established institutions. As a dancer, Clarke was outstanding not, like some performers, because she projected a powerful stage persona, but for a rarer quality. She had the capacity to immerse herself in movement until her presence seemed to merge into a bigger idea: the dance itself. That spirit was the hallmark of all her work, both on and off the stage.
She first attracted attention in the 1980s, working with the choreographers Janet Smith, Rosemary Butcher, Rosemary Lee and, most extensively, Siobhan Davies, of whose company she was a founder member in 1988, and where she remained until 1999. In each of these cases, the partnership between dancer and choreographer produced some of the most stimulating work of their careers. Two distinctive solos made with Davies illustrate different aspects of Clarke’s dancing. In the opening solo from Affections (1996), you could almost feel her breath reaching through her limbs or spiralling inside her torso. In contrast to that contained intensity, in Bank (1997) it was the inventiveness and density of detail in the dancing that struck you, and the exactitude of its execution.
“We both thought that movement itself was very communicative without narrative,” said Davies, “and Gill would use every part of her body to articulate that. In rehearsal, we loved forging detailed writing in the body together, which in performance she would make look intuitive and coherent. Her movement was always real. There was no showing off with Gill: she was a doer.”
Alongside her performing career, Clarke worked as a choreographer and a creative adviser, and was in high demand as a teacher in Britain and abroad. She also became increasingly involved in dance advocacy and provision. In 1982 she helped to found the national advocacy organisation Dance UK. In 1990 she began teaching at the now defunct Holborn Centre for Performing Arts, which hosted the first daily professional contemporary dance classes in London, designed to cater for the growing number of freelance dancers. This initiative developed into Independent Dance, an organisation that Clarke directed for the rest of her life (with Fiona Millward as co-director from 1996). Operating since 2006 from the Siobhan Davies Studios, in south London, its activities have expanded beyond dance classes to include seminars, summer schools and workshops.
In 1998, with Rachel Gibson, Clarke wrote and researched the Independent Dance Review for Arts Council England. The review documented the vitality and productivity of independent dancers and choreographers and the often severe financial, contractual and physical conditions in which they worked, as well as proposing some radical reforms. Soon afterwards, Clarke was instrumental in revitalising Chisenhale Dance Space, a historic artist-led centre for experimental dance in Bow, east London.
At the Southbank Centre, Clarke helped to develop programmes that brought together choreographers with artists from other fields such as composers, poets and film-makers. From 2000 to 2006, she was head of performance studies at Trinity Laban conservatoire, where she later developed a new MA course in creative practice, designed for mid-career dance artists to develop their work with the support of researchers, teachers and established choreographers.
Over the past year, Clarke became deeply involved in cross-disciplinary projects at PAL (Performing Arts Lab, also at Siobhan Davies Studios) in which she upheld her core belief in the body not only as a means of action and expression, but as a source of knowledge and understanding.
During 2011, she was also connected with several art gallery projects. For the Pioneers of the Downtown Scene exhibition at the Barbican art gallery, she helped to remount dance pieces by Trisha Brown from the late 60s and early 70s. She was a choreographer for the I Love Egypt project at the Serpentine Gallery and she created (with Lucy Skaer) a film installation for Siobhan Davies Commissions at the Bargehouse gallery on the South Bank in London.
Clarke grew up in Cambridge, where her father was a microbiologist working in cancer research. As a girl she excelled at sports, competing as a hurdler at national level. She was inspired by her dance studies, from the age of seven, with Mari Bicknell at the Cambridge Ballet Workshop. After graduating with a first-class degree in English and education from the University of York in 1977, she embarked on her career in dance.
She was appointed MBE in 1998. Earlier this year, in recognition of her diverse achievements in independent dance, she was granted the Jane Attenborough Dance UK industry award at the Critics’ Circle National Dance awards. Though she did not attend the ceremony – she was, as ever, working on a project – she sent a message accepting the award “on behalf of independent dance artists, that powerful and under-acknowledged workforce … who work in the demanding freedom outside the relative security of institutions. These multitalented artists are vital to the dance ecology; they are the performers or choreographers of most of the contemporary work seen around the country; they act as bridge-builders, connecting a public of all ages to the rewards of engaging with dance; they teach and inspire the next generation of artists as well as established company members; and most importantly their investment and passion generates knowledge that will help us to keep redefining dance.”
Though living with cancer during her last years, she kept her innate focus, fierce independence and sense of commitment to the end: on the day before she died, she had visited colleagues to discuss the future of her work.
She is survived by her brother, Peter, her nephew, David, and her niece, Xilonem.
Gill Clarke, dancer and educator, born 9 December 1954; died 15 November 2011