Interview: 'Crossing Ashland' With Brock Clawson

By Michelle Meywes Kopeny in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 11, 2014 4:45PM

2014_2_11_brockclawson.jpg With winter comes snow, wind and cold, but it also brings The Joffrey Ballet's “Contemporary Choreographers” program which opens tomorrow night at the Auditorium Theatre. The theme puts the spotlight on three choreographers making strides in the field including veterans Christopher Wheeldon and Alexander Eckman, but we've got our eyes on a local up and comer who will be the first true local artist presented by the Joffrey in more than ten years.

Brock Clawson spent much of his career with Thodos Dance Chicago as a dancer and choreographer before expanding out to create works for other companies like The Houston Metropolitan Dance Company and The Dance Center of Columbia College. In 2012 he was commissioned by the Milwaukee Ballet to create his breakout piece, Crossing Ashland, which caught the attention of Joffrey’s Artistic Director Ashley Wheater. We had the opportunity to ask Clawson a few questions about the piece, what it's like working with the prestigious Joffrey and being a Chicagoan.

CHICAGOIST: What's it like to be the first local artist presented by the Joffrey in more than a decade? How did it feel to get that call from Artistic Director Ashley Wheater?

BROCK CLAWSON: I am well aware of what an incredible honor it is to represent Chicago and to be asked to work with the Joffrey Ballet. I know that the Joffrey doesn't typically work with local choreographers, so to be chosen for this project makes me incredibly proud. When I first got the call from Ashley Wheater I was so nervous. I remember he asked me to come in to the Joffrey Tower and have a meeting with him. I wasn't sure how certain he was about doing my work so I thought it might be more of an interview process. In the meeting he immediately started talking about when he would like his company to perform the work and he set some dates within the first 5 minutes. I remember that he then went on to talk about other things and I was so stuck in my head and thinking...wait a minute, did he really just buy my work?! I could barely focus on anything we spoke about after that. To be hand-picked by Ashley and have him believe in me is really the most amazing feeling.

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Shane Urton and Joanna Wozniak rehearse Crossing Ashland (photo by Herbert Migdoll).
C: What has been your favorite part of working with the Joffrey dancers?

BROCK CLAWSON: My favorite part about working with the Joffrey dancers has been watching them adapt to my style of movement. It's a lot different than most of what they do but they are so talented and able to accomplish anything you throw at them. Ballet is very presentational at times and I really like to strip that away and get them to be more raw and human at times and it is not an easy thing for a dancer to do at first.

C: What was your inspiration for Crossing Ashland?

BROCK CLAWSON: This isn't a short and easy answer, but I will do my best. It's more of a series of events that lead into the idea. I recently finished a 3-year program at the Regenstein School of the Chicago Botanic Gardens studying Landscape Design and horticulture. I wanted to study another form of design that would further my choreography. In horticulture school there is a common phrase that you hear all the time, "Right Plant, Right Place" which basically means that a plant can survive in its non-ideal environment but it will never really be at its best unless it is given the proper elements it requires to help it truly thrive. I started to relate it to humans and began thinking about how many of us go through our lives in either the wrong relationship, job, location, etc and what happens if we actually challenge ourselves to find our "right plant, right place." My partner and I live in a neighborhood that is split by Ashland Avenue. While walking our dogs we would often say to one another, "Do you want to cross Ashland?" Most of the time we would choose not to, but every once in a while, when we were up for something different and feeling like going somewhere new and unfamiliar, we would cross Ashland. It sort of became a metaphor for change.

C: You've got modern artists like M83 in this piece. How do you select the music for your works?

BROCK CLAWSON: I probably listened to hundreds of pieces of music. I knew that I didn't want to go into a classical ballet company and use classical music, so I had to find a series of pieces of music that would all fit together in the context of a one-act ballet...much easier said than done. I have to see something happening when I listen to a piece of music. I hear many pieces of music that I love, but I don't necessarily feel like choreographing to them. If I hear something and start seeing pictures, stories, and feeling emotion...that's golden for me.

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Yoshihisa Arai rehearses Crossing Ashland (photo by Herbert Migdoll).
C: The pedestrian component of Crossing Ashland reminded me of Wayne McGregor's Infra (presented by Joffrey in 2012). Are you familiar with his work? Who are some choreographers that you admire or draw inspiration from?

BROCK CLAWSON: Unfortunately I have not seen Infra, but I would love to. Crossing Ashland actually premiered on The Milwaukee Ballet the same weekend that Infra premiered on the Joffrey, so obviously I was unable to see it. I can't really say that there are other choreographers that I draw inspiration from. I actually don't see a lot of dance because I want what comes out of me to be genuine to myself and to try not to be influenced by what other people are doing. Being that I work in the industry it is easier said than done, but I pull inspiration from my own life stories and that is really what ends up on the stage.

C: We look forward to February for Joffrey's contemporary program, but this has been an especially rough winter in Chicago. As a local, what’s your favorite season in the city?

BROCK CLAWSON: Well, I would love to be original and tell you something different, but I vote for summer all the way! Chicago comes alive in the summer and we all deserve every minute of sunshine, street fairs and bike rides along our gorgeous lake. Winter here is very difficult for me but I am so grateful to be working with the Joffrey through it all because it makes it go much faster. And once the show closes I will be going to Hawaii, so the sunshine is right around the corner!

Crossing Ashland makes its Joffrey premiere tomorrow, Feb. 12, at the opening night of "Contemporary Choreographers" which runs through Feb. 23. Tickets are $31 to $152. For show times, check The Joffrey Ballet's website. All performances take place at Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress.