Clarke Blair -- doing the digging in science and in dance

Colleen Snell of Frog in Hand dance recommended I connect with Clarke Blair -- a woman studying science at the University of Toronto and maintaining a performance career as a dancer. I was thrilled to sit down with Clarke, without knowing much of anything about her. I felt awkward, at first, chatting with such a collected, intelligent young woman, but by the end I was simply inspired and energized.

Since this interview I invited Clarke in as a dancer for some studio research I was doing as part of a science-art related fellowship and got to experience observing and dancing with this wonderful person, and this weekend Clarke and I are on a mixed bill in the pioneering series Dance Matters --see details below!

Clarke has an incisive mind and body, and whatever she's doing, she will be curious and we will be intrigued.

photo of Clarke Blair by Francesca Chudnoff

LR:  So tell me about your journey in art and in science.

CB: I've been dancing for ever. I trained with CCDT and I danced with their company in high school. I went into sciences in university. I always knew I would. I am in the process of finishing my undergraduate degree in neuroscience and cell biology at the University of Toronto. And at the same I am trying to keep my artistic life alive. That currently is manifesting itself in working as a part-time student, and dancing.

My [scientific] interests currently lie a little bit adjacent from my actual degree. I'm really interested in fertility and reproduction, early embryo development. I approach it from a cell biology perspective. I'm doing a research project this year about placental development. I'm still figuring out exactly what that is as I get permission do the study within a hospital, have all my immunization records checked etc.

LR: What drew you towards cell biology?

CB: I actually went to the University of Waterloo for a year in bio-chemistry and decided I did not like the school. I sorely missed the arts community. I worked hard to make connections, knowing that I was not going to do a post secondary dance program, so that I could keep dancing. But then I wound up in a place ....

LR: With no network....I went to the University of Waterloo. There used to be a dance program there, and I was in the final class that went through it. Back then there was a bunch of us who tried to create a network outside the university, producing our own shows etc. But once the program was phased out, there wasn't a good platform for its development any more.

CB: I thought maybe it would be different because there had been a dance program there but no....So I transferred to U of T because I wanted to study neuroscience, that was always something I was fascinated about. I needed another program when I enrolled so I chose cell biology, thinking I could change that choice later. But I ended up really enjoying it.

I took a course in developmental biology from the single cell to organ formation to limb formation. All these processes absolutely blew my mind. Neuroscience is also fascinating, but I've been a more attracted more to the biology side of it than the behavioural side of it.

LR: It may be too soon to know, but do you have an idea of that you want to do when you finish your degree?

CB: That's a good question. I like research. Doing something with a tangible, specific result, feels like I am really contributing something. So what I'm doing this year is aligning the desire for research with my actual area of research. I would like to get a Masters degree in reproductive and developmental medicine. I thought for a hot second I wanted to get into genetic counselling. Do you know what that is?

LR: Yes. I was 35 when I got pregnant with my son, and we were planning on delivering at Mount Sinai Hospital and they required you to go for genetic counselling, finding out the probabilities and markers for various disorders based on genetics and age and ultrasound.

CB: It's fascinating but it can be really depressing as well. You can analyze embryos and see which ones have the genetic markers and make sure that you continue with embryos that do not have the disease.

LR: In an interview I did with John Brumell  we got talking about this, the implications or ethics or morality -- actually Cindi Morshead and I were talking about this too.  It's a tricky issue. When these abilities should be used and where's the grey area? This ability to fine tune a fetus.

CB: There are moral and ethical questions. From person to person and also within policy.  You're helping people have children but there's a cost and so who has accessible, who doesn't have access? Making assisted reproduction accessible to queer people -- it is an incredibly heteronormative field. Understandably because of the way babies get made, but still....

LR: Outside of heterosexual intercourse babies are being conceived in all kinds of ways and it should be opened up, or made more inclusive to the wealth of potential parents out there...

CB: It's complicated.

LR: It wanders into religious and cultural beliefs. It must be interesting to be inside it because I imagine a lot of people go into science for the science and it's not until you get in deep that you start to see the social and political and cultural undercurrents and ramifications of what you're researching or working on. I suppose it's the same as dance. We often get into it because we like performing or moving or the costumes or the music but as you get deeper into it, you realize how it can impact things beyond pure entertainment.

CB: You do something that is purely aesthetic but someone will read other things into it.

LR: And you have to own it. You can't control it. And you can't deny it.

CB: I feel like dancers are better at that than science is. Science is taught often narrowly -- we're just looking at biology not the social factors that impact people's interactions and access to health care -- race, socioeconomic class.....which are part of the experience, it's not discussed with enough weight often.

LR: I imagine there are definite personality types that get draw to different fields. So many people don't believe that performers are actually very shy, that performing is a way to be open and protected -- it's true for me anyway. It may be true of people in the sciences -- the structure, the rigour, the predictability, the investigation.

CB: I know that I'm a very analytical person in science and in the dance. I want to be doing the digging. This is part of the work that's exciting to me.

LR: I feel you. I love that aspect too. Often it can be the choreographer who does the research and then comes up with the concepts of what the bodies or dancers should be doing, but I like when we (me as choreographer and the dancers) research together how the body might embody these concepts. Collaborative research -- based on a short list of ideas that I've cultivated through my own. My company is working on a piece about the transit of light from the Sun to Earth, and everyone is so different in their approach. I think the results are best when you have a mixture of the "I got it!" people and the "puzzlers".  They are all so interested in trying to understand the science.

CB: You have to do justice to the concept, the performer and to the audience -- so it's not an internal exploration of a photon in your body.

LR: Exactly. And once you are interested as a dancer, the next step is how to make the audience interested?

CB:  I love dance.

LR:  Can you talk about some of the dance projects you're involved in? You are working with Frog in Hand?

C I'm working with Frog in Hand right now. They are incredible. Colleen Snell is a phenomenal force to be reckoned with. And then I also work with Social Growl, Riley sims. Bopping around doing programs and intensives as much as I can.

LR: Is it hard to balance the two?

CB: It is definitely difficult. I am grateful that Riley and Colleen have been so accommodating of my scheduling. I have structured my class schedule when I know I have classes, and I've chosen classes where, for example if I know I have a performance in March, the class does not have four major assignments due in March. It take s a lot of wiggling and planning months in advance, but it has been possible.

And I also really do care about school. If I was taking something that I didn't love I would find it harder. If I was in a program I wasn't enjoying it would be like smashing my head against a wall. I feel lucky that I've found and that I've worked to find my niche so that all the classes and course work are things I enjoy. It makes it easier to get the work done.

Doing research projects helps because the schedule is more flexible. I might be in the lab til 8pm filling 80 pipettes but if I don't do it I know I'm messing myself for the next day. If I come in late I'm only screwing myself over.

LR: You are so together. May I ask how old you are?

CB: 21. Almost 22.

LR: You're so young! I'm sure you hear that all the time. Old people like me saying it.

CB: But it also is true.

LR: You're so together. Really. I've met a lot of 21 year olds lately who are so lost. It's hard right now -- every generation finds this age hard - but I think there's a lot happening on a lot of different fronts right now, socially, politically and culturally.  All these things were issues when I was 21 but there wasn't the same pressure to be involved with every one of them. There's so much responsibility put out there to fix things.

CB: Yeah, it's not possible to not have a stance on the issues. If you are silent you're not helping. That's the feeling.

LR: When I was 21 I was able to just be angsty in a generalized way. That included my concerns about the environment and the Gulf Wars and civil rights but everything was just a little bit quieter. I didn't feel like I had to have a particular or well-developed view on every issue and I didn't know what my views were yet because I was just figuring out who I was and what I really cared about as my understanding of the world got broader and broader.....

Clarke Blair in Frog in Hand's The Fall
photo by Francesca Chudnoff

CB: If you are making art in this political climate, people are going to interpret it in different ways than perhaps what you wanted. So having an understanding of what's going on and how your work might be interpreted is necessary.

And it's complicated because you can't control how people do interpret your work.

LR:The issues are on the minds of audiences whether your work is intended to take them on or not.

Knowing that, it's hard to know what the right decisions are in the creation process, if you think about it for too long.

You have to let your art be what it is, but also do the critical thinking from within, in the larger cultural context, and allow the critical thinking to happen from without and learn to sit in whatever discomfort that might cause.

CB: That is actually something they have hammered home in the last years of my degree. Scientific literacy. You need to be reading everything critically. Go through the results of a paper, before you read their discussion of it. Are the conclusions they are drawing what the results are showing? Even the experimental method needs to be questioned: is it a fair control for what they want to investigate?

Sometimes it's a beautifully done experiment and sometimes it is a little wonky. It's the language that gets to me. The language that is used to try to get funding, to show your results. The language can be "we did this thing and we are correct".

LR: Without any room for elaboration or correction. That's in the arts too. Sometimes I feel, maybe it's my background in academia that brings it to this language, that in order to put something on stage you have to have a thesis and if you don't prove your thesis through your piece people are harsh about it.

I wonder about the possibility of having a thesis and adapting it as you research so that it may still be mysterious or only partially revealed by the time it hits the stage. The audiences themselves can reveal or make conclusions from the raw data of the performances?

CB: Yes: "This was the starting point and we've moving away from it to this new thing...."

LR: Is it related to grant-writing? You have to put it in concrete terms to apply for funding, and there's an inherent pressure, if you get that funding, to do exactly what you said you'd do. There's wiggle room with the arts councils, as in they understand that where you start might not be where you end up, but I imagine it's not that flexible in science?

CB: Well there's basic science, translational, clinical. In basic science it is more flexible because it's discovery for the sake of discovery at that level.

LR: Of course and in clinical research you can't change it as you go because you are actually affecting people.

CB: And there's pressure to discover things that can be used at that point. People do good science. It's a tiny fraction that does bad science, or not-the-best science. But it affects us all.

Another a weird parallel between science and dance is a bit of pretentiousness. I'm thinking about writing specifically. In scientific writing, you need language for talking to your peers and a different language for the general public. But I've read papers that are literally in my field and I don't understand what they are talking about.

I think about communication a lot. If I'm writing a paper, I feel that my mom should be able to read my introduction and understand it. I think that is overlooked in science. And in dance. Especially in conceptual work, which sometimes seems like it has been made for other dancers, so when non-dancers come in they feel alienated.

LR:  I recently read the book Houston, We Have a Narrative written by  Randy Olson, a scientist who became a film maker and then became a coach for scientists on how to tell better stories about their science so that people get excited about it. To communicate with passion and interest.

It's great you are already thinking about it.

So what's this year like for you academically, artistically?

CB: This year will be the final year of my degree. I'm doing an 8 month research project and taking a couple of courses in the winter, working with Frog in Hand on a new immersive production, Stories in the Woods (October 2019), working with Social Growl in the new year, on a new creation.

LR: Lots of learning and new work. I know when I was in academics I loved learning and never questioned the constant learning curve, but in dance sometimes I find it hard  -- maybe because my whole body is the tool -- sometimes I just want to work from a place of what I know. Just for five minutes. Then I'll go back to learning all the new.

CB: Sometimes it's very nice to be told what to do. You want me to do a tendu? Sure. I know what that is. It's nice.

LR: Was it similar for you in academics with the learning curve?

CB: I feel that learning in my academic brain and my dancer brain are different. Working in a university, you kind of have to play a game. I've always been a school person and I can play that game. I test well and memorize and regurgitate. But the research project I did last year was an absolutely incredible experience. It has carried over into other aspects of my life: I don't know things, I am a baby in this new world and if I make a mistake there are real consequences. So checking the ego and asking for help and asking the stupid questions is better than to do something incorrectly. My research advisor was lovely and would answer all my stupid questions.

Huge learning curve. I was there to learn, not to carry my ego in and pretend that I already know how to do it all. Because I don't. That was the point.

In dance now, I ask a lot of questions and try to leave the ego. Like floor work. It's not been part of my training and I don't know how to approach it. I need help and I don't need to pretend that I'm good.

LR: I have taken two classes with Elke Schroeder who has a really unique and exciting approach to floor work and I love it but it is hard to be ok with being bad at it. But the more I learn about her teaching, the more I understand that being good at it is not the point or the benefit from doing the work.  But you have to be willing to go in as baby in a new world, as you said, in order to figure that out.

It's ok to say "I don't know."

CB: It's fine.

LR: It might solve a lot of problems in the world if we were all more willing to admit we don't know.

CB: Even to say "This is what I've done and this is it. I'm not going to pretend it's anymore than that. And here's what I might do next."

Clarke Blair with Social Growl in Amorous Playlist
photo by Merick Williams

LR: Speaking of what's next....what is your research project?

CB: This is a great question I'm still in the process of negotiating what it is and I still have a lot reading to do. But it will focus on disorders of placental development. I'm still reading the papers. The lab where I work, the head works with imprinting, genetic imprinting. Two copies of every gene and only one is active and usually that is random. But in certain tissues it matters which gene is active. If the placenta is heavily dependent on the paternal genes so if you have a mutation in that gene it causes issues, or if its not activated or it is suppressed you can have problems with placenta formation.


LR: It's amazing that our bodies get up and do anything when you think of all the things that could go wrong and are constantly going wrong in there.

CB: It actually is. Especially in pregnancy development -- there are so many things that can go wrong.  So when they don't go wrong it really is a miracle that we can be born and be functional beings. It's wild.

LR: Do you have a specific hospital you will work with?

CB: The lab I'm working in is out of Mount Sinai. I was born there.

LR:  I would imagine as you get into a research project it can be hard to hold onto the fact that what you are doing is about taking care of people.

CB: The project I did last year  was with baby fish up 15 days old, they were the size of my eyelash. What I was working on was related to a protein that is implicated in a human disease. So there was a care aspect to it, but my actual work was so removed from was hard sometimes to care about 4 day old fish. I've been hunched over a microscope for hours, my eyes are kind of crossed. It's hard to remember the tangible aspect of what I'm doing.

But sometimes science is just about learning about stuff, without a direct line to practical use.

I like the people side of things, which is why fertility counselling is interesting to me. I can be communicating science to people who are not necessarily experts in that, and helping them understand the possibilities.

LR: That exists in the arts too, that detachment from the deeper goal. Through art you really are trying to care for people not just your peers or your family. You are trying to offer the world something that will make us better.

CB:  And you don't just want people to come see your work because you made it, but because it offers something else. That's difficult and scary and who knows if you can ever achieve it?

LR: You do all the research and you put it out there and you hope the audiences use it and run with it.

CB: The work changes based on who's in the room dancing and who's in the audience.

LR: I'll wrap this up because I'm sure you have places to go! So to close, could you tell me what's your favourite thing about dance and your favourite thing about science?

CB:  I think with both it's the research. Being able to dig in and sink in to something whether it's the function of a single protein in a cell or embodying a concept.

I do love them both.


Art + Science interviews are made possible with the generous support of the Chalmers Family Fund Fellowship program, administered by the Ontario Arts Council.


In a wonderful twist of fate you can see choreography and performance by Lucy Rupert and by Clarke Blair (along with Sara Porter, Meagan O'Shea and Newton Moraes) this weekend at:

Dance Matters
Series 2 - Rebel Yells
February 8 @ 8pm, February 9 @ 4pm
The Citadel: Ross Centre for Dance, 304 Parliament St.

Limited Seating, please purchase tickets in advance
$16-$20, available for purchase online below, or with cash only payment at the door
PWYC tickets - a limited number will be available at the door for Sundays' show

Tickets will be sold online up until 2hrs prior to the show after which they may be purchased at the box office 45min prior to curtain.

Sara Porter, Lucy Rupert, Meagan O'Shea, Newton Moraes, Clarke Blair

Postcard image featuring: Dancers: Emilio Colalillo and Falcione Patino Cruz, Choreographer: Newton Moraes, Photo by: Kent Waddington

Read about Clarke's choreography here:


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