“Crossing Ashland”: Brock Clawson’s New Work for the Milwaukee Ballet
by John Nevin
Brock Clawson’s approach to choreography is in some ways unusual; his works are intricate, entertaining, and widely respected, but as his success has evolved, he has focused his work carefully. Since receiving the prestigious Cliff Dweller Award as Choreographer of the Year in 2006, he has completed seven works, and each has made its own significant impression. Clawson came out of the remarkable choreography development scene that is Thodos Dance Chicago, and three of his major works (“Falling Out”, “Along the Way”, and “Nine”) were toured by them. More recently, his works “Give and Take” for Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago, “The Yawning” for Houston Met, and “Falling Out” for Eisenhower Dance Ensemble of Michigan, have brought his unique eloquence to an even broader audience.
As a choreographer, Clawson works generally within the aesthetic of Contemporary and to some degree Jazz dance, but his attention to elegance and architecture gives his work a ballet-like dynamic, and that may be one of the reasons why the prestigious Milwaukee Ballet asked him to create a new work for their “Winter Series”, a widely respected annual concert run of one-act works.
The opportunity brought with it unique challenges to his process; Clawson is extraordinary in his emphasis on the importance of sound design, but because of the scope of this work, developing a successful score required an even more expansive approach. “This is their contemporary show, and many choreographers will use classical music for any one-act work, even for contemporary ballet, because it lends itself to the length of the work,” Clawson observed. “I knew that I didn’t want to go in with classical music, but that immediately raised the question, how am I going to find contemporary music that you can put together to present a cohesive one act work?”
To do so, Clawson listened to hundreds of tracks, and seriously considered more than thirty. Although the final design includes only a few, there were perhaps fifteen that he brought into the studio to actually arrange into early versions of the work. “The process was really to first find the music that I absolutely wanted to use, and then to find the music that would effectively connect the through-line.” On what basis does he make those choices? “It’s more than just whether I like the beat or the melody, and it doesn’t always even matter so much how much I actually like the music, what matters is whether I can see something else happening to that music.”
Of course, as complicated as these choices are, none of them are free-standing; each choice is interconnected with the development of the concept of the work, and with a sensitivity to the audience that it will be presented to. While it seems almost tautological to describe Dance as a dynamic art form, Dance is dynamic not because it works in the medium of movement, but because it synthesizes so many different artistic elements, each of which is continuously inspiring change in the others. As Clawson’s architecture for the work evolved, as his attention to the details of its movement developed, and even as he progressed in his reflections on the metaphor that inspired it’s title — the difficulty, and ultimately, the exhilaration of facing and sharing change — the sound design evolved as well.
The result is a timeline that balances consistency and change, as every score must: consistency, to maintain focus for the visual inspiration of the movement, and change, to allow that focus to move effortlessly through a careful and compelling development. To see what an innovative, award-winning choreographer does with an inspiring concept, a brilliant company, and a finely-tuned sound design, check out “Crossing Ashland” February 16-19 at the Milwaukee Ballet’s Winter Series.
Contributor John Nevin is the Resident Composer and Sound Designer for Thodos Dance Chicago, as well as an independent record producer, and a founding member of the group ‘ohana Dreamdance. In addition to his work as a composer, John works with choreographers and other artists in the sound design for their creative works, and writes extensively about music and dance at aotpr.com