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Claire Elizabeth Barratt: Blurring Boundaries

by Steven Maginnis

August 2006

In the arts, where creators and spectators alike have become used to accepting different media in different spaces, Claire Elizabeth Barratt seeks to challenge such a standard.  A choreographer and a dancer by training, Barratt has focused her energies on blurring -- and sometimes eliminating -- boundaries that separate motion from music, painting, and drama.  She is constantly exploring how movement can go beyond conventional dance, and she wishes to go against common ideas of where movement art should be performed and for how long.  She also wants to make the audience part of the experience and eliminate the fourth wall between spectator and performer.

Currently, Barratt runs Cilla Vee Movement Projects, a company of performers that explores the possibilities of blending motion with other art forms.  Two complementary projects, Motion Sculpture Movement Installations and Sound of Movement, comprise Cilla Vee’s main ongoing work.

Growing up in Chester, England, Barratt started performing for family and friends when she was only five; by eleven, she was in a sacred music and dance group that toured churches in Great Britain.  Barratt came to appreciate how different artistic media could be melded together; her mother was a musician, while her father wrote literature.  Barratt was eventually inspired to seek out a medium that would allow her to explore the incorporation of different art forms, settling on dance.  She proved to be adept at choreography, and in 1990 she arrived in the United States to pursue a dance career.

Throughout the nineties, Barratt honed her skills by co-directing the Circle Modern Dance ensemble in Knoxville, Tennessee.  She also choreographed original dances for various other companies in Tennessee and in North Carolina, as well as classic works such as “Madame Butterfly” and “Carmen” for the Knoxville Opera Company. 

Seeking a change in direction, Barratt moved to New York in 2002 and founded Cilla Vee Movement Projects.  The form of moving sculpture they perform, unlike the robotic mime acts common on New York’s streets, is far more subtle.  As a “motion sculpture” piece, Barratt slowly changes poses in a quiet metamorphic style, costumed appropriately to the setting.

“The Motion Sculpture Project originated with the idea of just purely the movement style itself,” Barratt says in her romantically accented English.  “It was inspired by modeling for art classes, and feeling literally like a piece of sculpture.”  She would hold poses for thirty seconds while the artists sketched her gesture as quickly as possible without great detail before she changed her pose.

“I kind of expanded on that idea of slowly melting and morphing and shifting from one position to another like a slowly moving sculpture.  Then it expanded into this whole concept of different contexts to put it in, so it can be defined very specifically toward a certain theme or a certain environment to create a whole world.”

One example of Barratt’s creativity involved an art gallery exhibition that emphasized surrealist painting and sculpture.  The show was held at the Williamsburg Art and Historic (WAH) Center in Brooklyn.  To complement the environment, Barratt devised alien-like creatures of different colors; she and three other women, costumed and made up in shades of green, purple, orange, or brown, slowly changed poses and blended with the surrounding art pieces.  Their skillful, metamorphic moves allowed them to be a focal point of the exhibition while still incorporating themselves into the environment.

Her more common motion sculpture installations are less surreal. A popular one is “Elegant Venture Cocktail,” which she has performed both solo and as a collaborative effort.  Wearing an elaborate cocktail dress, Barratt quietly moves and shifts with a champagne glass in hand, integrating herself seamlessly in her surroundings -- either in a conservatory or in front of an art museum, both places where an elegant cocktail reception would naturally occur. 

With her troupe, though, Barratt creates the illusion of a real high society affair, employing ten performers who come in and leave the scene at random.  “We drink real champagne,” Barratt says with a laugh, and some of us will get a little tipsy -- then later we’ll rejoin the scene once we’ve regained our composure.”

In the cast version of “Elegant Venture Cocktail,” live classical musicians are included in the scene; the other performers move to the rhythm of the music, and the musicians are part of the whole fabric by integrating themselves with the tableau by playing pieces appropriate to the highbrow scene.  The music is always an important factor in Claire Barratt’s work; not only does a live musician add to the scene, he is part of the greater whole.  “If you just play music on a CD,” Barratt explains, “it’s just background music; it’s not really part of the work.”

Many of Barratt’s tableaux come alive on video, where she experiments with light and color to create what might be called a living painting.  “Silver” characterizes her desire to integrate herself in her surroundings and reflect the moment -- literally.  Costumed in silver clothing and makeup, Barratt gently extends her arms and slowly positions her torso to catch the glittering rays of the rising sun against her body. 

As she moves like a ballerina in slow motion, vibrant shades of red and orange contrast vividly against metallic silver, while the hushed noise of the street below sonically complements the visual representation of the dawn.  Thus, movement and sound are together awakened. 

In other works, Barratt will create a tableau of her own making to complement her choreography, such as in “November Frost,” a video work borrowing from Japanese autumn motifs.  Colored and costumed in red, she slowly turns in a heavy, descending manner against a bleak landscape to convey the desolation of late autumn; twisted branches poke out of a surreal landscape of muted shades of brown and dark green that reflect the Japanese concept of nature as one harmonious whole.

Her live installations, however, are where Barratt strives to include the existing setting as an integral part of her performances.  Here the “motion sculpture” is designed as an extension of the space it occupies to involve the audience as much as to blend into the environment, eliminating the boundaries between audience and spectator.  “It’s not really a performance,” Barratt explains.  “The audience doesn’t have to sit and watch it from beginning to end, then it’s over and they clap and go away.  It’s like it’s a part of the environment that could exist there forever, for all everyone knows.” 

The spectators are encouraged to view the piece for as long as they wish, from any angle they choose.  From Barratt’s view, the spectators are part of the work because they share the scene with the performers.   Spectators are encouraged to interact with the performers as well, and Barratt’s troupe is trained to respond accordingly, the way their characters might be expected to react.

While the performances themselves may depend on spontaneity, the rehearsals leave nothing to chance.  Barratt and her repertory company will spend up to twenty minutes warming up by relaxing their muscles, then spend an hour perfecting movements appropriate to their characters and environment, without any distractions.  Although she and her performers are prepared to interact with spectators, they usually don’t get the opportunity; Barratt concedes that most people are too polite to step into the realm of the motion sculpture piece. 

Children, of course, tend to be the exception.  They normally walk into the tableau, as when the Cilla Vee troupe was performing at one venue, costumed inside striped tubes.  The children, puzzled by the tubes, walked up to them, and the performers reacted by wrapping themselves around the kids or rubbing up against them, sometimes showing their faces from inside and staring at the kids, responding to and rewarding their curiosity.

Barratt goes further with her live staged pieces, as she and her company did when they collaborated with Chashama, an organization that supports artists and performers outside the mainstream.  Barratt used a midtown Manhattan storefront run by Chashama for a series of window exhibitions with sets and characters conceived to complement each other with live music to add to the atmosphere. 

One such piece, “Carmen Miranda Tropical Installation,” presented Barratt sensuously stretching and reclining on a Caribbean beach with festive tropical music in the forefront. Spectators were invited inside for refreshments to be part of the fiesta.  They tended to stay outside, however, for her edgier and more compelling window displays.  One such piece, her multimedia installation “Between MA and a Soft Space,” may be her most ambitious motion sculpture work of all.

Based on the Japanese concept of “MA,” the idea that the empty area between objects and sound has its own importance, “Between MA and a Soft Space” features a shapeless, formless plateau in which Barratt and her troupe convey a separate life in the void to show that such dead space isn’t really dead at all.  The performers, costumed in white, stretch and roll slowly across the stage to define the space in between objects and illustrate the life in that void. 

Guitarist David Beardsley, meanwhile, harmonizes with their motions with a microtonal buzz, his notes changing as slowly and as slightly as the performers’ movements, fleshing out the silence with a subdued drone.  The awareness of the void in between objects and sounds are built on even more by painter Lara Hanson, who captures the Cilla Vee troupe’s gestures as quickly as possible -- which merely intersects with the performers by becoming part of the movement; the painter, after all, is moving too.  The gesture paintings slowly accumulate on a wall, building up with intensity; space is fleshed out and expanded, the inference being that it could go on forever.

Barratt’s “Sound of Movement” project strives to bring live music and dance together to work as a unified whole rather than as separate parts that share the same space.  In Barratt’s own words, “The ‘Sound of Movement’ is about working with live music as real sound in real time.  The focus is on equal collaboration between the movement and sound artists...[The] principal is that of being mutually independent as a strong solo entity, yet interweaving to create a fabric which is doubled in its strength and diversity.”

“Living Rock,” inspired by the volcanic rock along the shoreline of Japan and including the percussive work of Tatsuya Nakatani, is one such work.  Here, percussion sketches out plants growing through the earth below rock formed from fire, while Barratt illustrates the forces of nature through broad, chaotic swings followed by moderate thrusts to show plants taking root and prospering in such an unforgiving landscape. 

Fire, meanwhile, is represented by the artist costumed in red fabric and moving slowly.  As the sounds crash through the atmosphere to simulate ocean waves breaking against the shoreline, Barratt stretches out forcefully across the stage.  The work culminates with a rush of air through a hole in a cymbal while Barratt relaxes her lungs with breath to simulate the wind dispersing the rock fragments and returning them to the sea. 

Many times, though, a “Sound of Movement” piece can simply be improvised on the spot, with a theme or idea supplied at the last minute by audiences during the show.  “Sometimes it’s nice not to have a theme, to just respond to the energy of the environment,” Barratt says. “You just pick up something from that second, and it’s not really related to anything solid or tangible at all.”  Sometimes a dancer and musician will simply look at an image -- like two circles on a piece of paper -- and simultaneously illustrate in it in sound and movement.  “You just catch something, and you just go with it, and it kind of bypasses the whole cerebral thing.”

Barratt’s devotion to breaking boundaries and unifying different artistic media go beyond her own projects.  In January 2003, she and Mr. Nakatani founded H&H Productions (for heaven and hell) to encourage more creativity in the performing arts.  Their studio in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx is used regularly for experimenting with new musical compositions and creating dance works and even releasing new recordings. 

Here, Barratt continues to cross-pollinate music, movement, and fine art to express her belief that creation itself -- the act of nature begetting life, and allowing art to be drawn from life -- is art, just as art is a form of creation.  All art, she insists, stems from life and the creation of life, hence the punning name of her company, Cilla Vee (or c’est la vie), which draws from life as a basis for creating a work of art. 

With so much life to observe and take in from the streets and squares of New York, it seems that Barratt, through her solo and collaborative projects, will continue to make art out of life and fuse disparate art forms into single works for some time to come.

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