Cool Thesis of the Week: Claire Thomforde-Garner
Each week, The Quest profiles the thesis of one senior whose work is worth sharing with the Reed community. The purpose of this column is to increase awareness among Reedies of the work being done in various academic fields and to make disparate forms of scholarship accessible and understandable to all.
For most Reedies, dancing is a weekends-only respite from academic work. For Claire Thomforde-Garner ’12, dance is academics. Currently Reed’s only Dance-Theater major, Claire, of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is writing her interdisciplinary thesis (Dance is not yet a standalone major at Reed), guided by Professor Carla Mann of the Dance department and Kathleen Worley of the Theater department, on “how we use clothing to transform the body onstage.” Her thesis, which consists of a written portion and an original performance, aims to use this transformation to challenge expectations about the human body and its relationship with the self. The original piece, titled “Technical Bodies,” will run February 23rd, 24th, and 25th this year.
The first part of Claire’s thesis will be a written examination of the use of costuming by three contemporary American dance companies: Pilobolus, Momix, and BodyVox. According to Claire, these companies’ costuming is especially notable for its active role in shaping the dance performance itself. The transformative role of clothing “entails perception, but also movement,” she explains, citing the examples of high heels and corsets as clothing that molds the movement and shaping of the body itself toward an idealized form. Pilobolus, says Claire, is one example which “uses multiple bodies to transform what a body looks like,” including one extreme case in which men in suits wear naked women as hats, “literally using bodies as clothing.”
Another example is the “elaborate, fabricated costumes” of Momix, including one featuring a person inside a “palm tree fungus with spores” that is “so abstract that you don’t even see the person and the body disappears.” However, Claire says, far from detracting from the quality of the dance, this obscurement adds to it: “You only see the movement.”
An oddly similar effect is achieved by the “slapstick” humor of BodyVox, one of whose pieces includes performers dressed as sheep being herded by a sheepdog, making baa-ing sounds as they go in an “intentionally silly” use of costuming. “The whole time it’s ridiculous,” says Claire, “but you never think of sheep as moving in a dance.” Through the silliness of the dancers, she points out, “people become objects,” and instead of being subjects in their own right, “they just become bodies onstage representing a type of movement.” Indeed, this sort of humor is central to many of the works of all three groups, and according to Claire, it is an especially effective way of challenging preconceived notions. “You can go two ways,” she says, by either displaying “bodies that are grotesque” in an effort to make an audience feel “uncomfortable” and “antagonized,” or by using humor.
This is also what Claire hopes to do in “Technical Bodies,” a four-part production which uses wrestling as a lens to show movement. Wrestling, she says, is “active, like dance,” and wrestlers “have a very ‘type’ body,” making it the perfect subject for an exploration of movement. Claire says costumes are also very important in wrestling. For example, Mexican lucha libre wrestlers are famous for their elaborate masks. “You never see them without their masks because that is their identity,” says Claire. This identity-molding is central to the mythos of lucha libre: At the end of a match, the loser takes off his mask, and because he has been exposed, he is never able to wrestle again.
Though Claire will give away few details about her piece lest she ruin the effect, she does reveal that one of the four sections of the performance will focus on lucha libre. Each section, she says, will demonstrate a “different relation between costuming…and how it can restrict and transform in wrestling.” Claire says she hopes that people who view her piece will rethink how they view clothing and costuming and the body. “Everyday clothing creates expectations,” she says and “we go to the theater with those expectations. That deals with everything from body type, to sexual orientation…to disabled bodies.”
If the purpose of art is to hold a mirror to life, Claire’s art holds a mirror to the viewers’ own attitudes. “The ultimate goal of this,” she says, “is to challenge the audience’s expectations for…what the body should look like and how it should move.”