The Clementine Project began my junior year at the University of Maryland as a dance piece based on a recording of my Nanny telling the story of how she met my Bumpy. This was a special story; it was not her usual epic tale of life on a rugged mid west farm. Nor was it a cute recollection of children long grown up. This was a story about Clementine Antoinette Robinson. She was a woman with doubts, hopes and fears. She dared to love again, when she had been beaten and abandoned with her two children as a twenty-something year old woman in the 1930s.
As I developed a dance around this story one phrase kept cropping up, “I didn’t know”. In addition to becoming a central statement I repeated in the performance, “I didn’t know” reflected my lack of knowledge about the realities of my great grandmother’s life.
The first version of Clementine was performed at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center in April 2011. You can watch a full-length video of the performance at http://theclementineproject.wordpress.com/category/video/. In this version of the dance I was primarily concerned with relating myself to my great grandmother, her stories and life.
Dance making is a way I investigate things personal to me. It’s a way of learning about something, and moreover figuring out where I fit into this new knowledge or discovery. I believe personal art is highly useful to structures that support the individuals that have made it. I believe that these supportive structures, families or communities, for example, can enjoy the art, connect to it easily, and learn about the individual that made the art and about how the art connects to their community.
My first iteration of “Clementine” lent itself to personal investigation of self, my great grandmother, and the relationship between us, in terms of time, space and family. Admittedly I hoped that the performance would engage family members that came to see it. My family (especially my extended family) is not particularly interested in the arts. Some of the work I make and perform is non-linear or non-narrative and I sense that it alienates my family, who none-the-less bravely trudge into modern dance performances, not always quite equipped for what they are about to experience.
As a young artist pursuing choreography I have some small desire that my family be interested in what I do. I hoped that, at least thematically, Clementine would appeal to them and even engage them in my work.
However I was disappointed by the lack of verbal discussion around the finished product. I could tell my family had been moved by the performance. I got many comments along the lines of “it was beautiful” and “I liked it” from my parents, grandparents, and sisters. My sisters reported that both of my parents had cried during the performance. Despite visible, emotional response, there was little communication about what the piece had meant to my family.
For a while I dropped Clementine; when I returned to the project in the Winter of 2012 my focus began to broaden. I was interested in collecting stories from and about other women in my family.
I began this process with informal interviews with my mother, Teresa Wolfe and my grandmothers, Gloria Robinson, and Brenda Wolfe.
(To read in depth reflections on the interview process check out The Clementine Project Blog http://theclementineproject.wordpress.com/category/writing/).
In the case of this project, art became the impetus for verbal communication. Honestly if I had not been invested in investigating family narratives for the sake of the project, I know many of the conversations I had with women in my family would not have happened, or have been as in depth as they were, because I was actively seeking to construct family narratives.
In its second incarnation I wanted Clementine to create an opportunity for more in depth engagement with my family. I was inspired to include women in my family as active participants in the creation and performance of the piece, I viewed as being about them, this time around.