Clear Away: A Fisherman's Farewell

Interview with Director/Choreographer Carl Thomsen

Gail Mountain - Gloucester Daily Times, 10/7/99

Carl & Jeffry taking bows, taken by Frank MolinskyGM: How would you define Clear Away: A Fisherman's Farewell, for someone who is not familiar with the art of modern dance -- not just the story line, but how do you insure that audience members will recognize the story line through dance?

CT: I call Clear Away a dance/drama. This means that I am telling a story through dance, as opposed to a more abstract work that may have no recognizable story line. I am acutely aware of the general population's unfamiliarity with this kind of dancing and make it very easy for both the 'dance' and the 'non-dance' audience to feel comfortable and knowledgeable about what they are seeing onstage. Clear Away's story line is easier to follow than the Nutcracker. Because the central theme hits so close to home, Gloucester residents will recognize and follow the story immediately. In the printed program is a complete synopsis of the story in case anyone cares to follow the "blow by blow" action. Also in the program are in depth musical notes for the musicians in the audience. It is a multi-dimensional show and different aspects will appeal to people of all ages. The Sunday afternoon show (3 PM) was added specifically to make it easy for  young people and seniors to attend.

GM: The performance is directed and choreographed by you, with original music by Jeffry Steele. Can you give us a little inside scenario of a collaboration scene between the two of you?

CT: At a certain point, composing and choreographing can be like carpentry or masonry. For instance, I went to Jeffry and said that I need music for a scene where the fisherman's wife receives the news of her husband's death. It had to be a certain length, a certain musical meter, come easily out of another scene and be followed by a third one, have a definite strength of character, and yet a certain delicate quality. He said, "OK." One week later he gave me a tape with the music I had "ordered". I put it in the tape player and am very soon reduced to tears. Not only had he fulfilled all my choreographic "requirements", but he also added musical dimensions I could never have dreamt of. He has astonished me every step of the way! Winslow Homer woodcut of wife & son gazing out to sea

Jeffry is a classical guitarist and composer. He has also studied a lot of dance over the years. This gives him a particular talent for creating music that is "danceable" (something that choreographers always search for).

The show has been developing for two years. Eventually we eliminated all the other composers material and made it entirely Jeffry's. This had made it much more solid and integrated musically than every before.

Jeffry and I have very similar sensibilities about Gloucester's heritage. Neither of us think of ourselves as fishermen or maritimers in the least! Yet, we have been inspired by those people and the heritage they have formed. We have formed those feelings into this show and hope some of it will now reflect back to those who have lost their livelihood and need inspiration the most.

GM: Proceeds will be donated to benefit the Gloucester Fishermen's Wives' Memorial Statue. Do you have any idea how much more money they need and your reason for supporting the project?

CT: The exact details of this are yet to be worked out, but I am committed to contributing a portion of the proceeds from this show to the Gloucester Fisherman's Wives Memorial. They will have a table at the show to take contributions as well.

No one is making money on Clear Away. 90% of the cast and directors are completely volunteer. Those who are being paid are getting a pittance compared to the hours they have invested. The reason we are doing Clear Away is because it honors what which is the best and greatest about Gloucester; the men and women who withstood tragedy over and over again and, yet, stood solid as the granite this town rests on.

Gloucester's fishermen are part of that strength. Gloucester's women are the other part. The end of the century is a good time to honor their strength in metal and stone. If the show sells out three performances there will be money enough to contribute several hundred dollars to their effort to build that statue.

GM: You say Clear Away is a story for the end of the millennium, I'm not sure what you mean by that. Can you explain that?

CT: Things are changing here in Gloucester. The coming century will be very different for this city than this one. Each and every one of us is helping create the future of our town. Politicians, merchants, and developers certainly have a strong voice in where we are going. But it is crucial that others make themselves heard also.

It is particularly important for artists to use their voices to contribute what they can to our shared future. Artists can be a culture's visionaries. We can help create a positive vision of ourselves as a community by looking with new eyes at what was, is, and can be. People like Patty Dugan, Shepp Abbott, Celeste Miller, Ian McColl, and Gordon Baird, Rick Doucette (and many more) are all investing huge amounts of time and resources in helping to create a positive culture for our young people. If  you look at these people you can  see a tremendous amount of hope coursing through this town right now. It is thrilling!

Clear Away tries to take the best of what we are as a community and focus it in an understandable way so that people can see it and hold onto it when times get hard. The central message of Clear Away is "letting go" or "saying goodbye" in a profound way. I mean REALLY blessing the past and letting it go.

I was not born to a fisherman. I was born to a naval aviator. When he was at MIT on the GI bill he also did flight training on the weekends. One day while he was flying out over the ocean near Cape Cod his plane went down. He parachuted safely into the water. His wingman signaled a nearby fishing boat who picked my father from the water. To my amazement many years later, the small fishing boat was out of Gloucester. I found the announcement in the Gloucester Daily Times from 1949. That was the first time my father's plane went down.

Nine years later, when I was four and a half years old, he was on a weekend of naval reserve training and the wing of his plane folded on takeoff. He was killed.  He left three kids and wife.

I am grateful to this town for giving me the archetypal story that helped me to truly mourn my father's death. Every one in the cast of Clear Away, indeed, every person in the theater watching the show and feels the sting of sorrow at their own life's losses. But we do not leave it at that. Clear Away's greatest moment is that of healing following the tragedy. It comes with the encircling the newly widowed woman and child, the re-integrating them into the life of the town, and the weaving together again of the fabric of community so deeply torn by loss.

Now, in 1999, it would seem that we could use a lot of help carrying into the future that which is the best and greatest in our character, and clear away the unworthy and unneeded.

GM: It's interesting to note that this may be the last time to see this production, as it may not come back again. Certainly theatrical productions do this all the time, but it seems like an awful lot of work for these things not to have a little longer run. What is your thinking behind that?

CT: Without financial or institutional support, Jeffry and I cannot sustain this effort any longer. Neither of us regret a moment, but it is time to move on. And there is the company of 50+ performers devoting their time and talents for free. It is impossible to sustain that kind of commitment without financial backup. Besides, there are so many other stories to tell, so many other dances to make... Jeff and I are looking forward to new challenges.

Yes, we have contacted producers who may have the resources to take the show further, and that would be fine with us. But we have done the very best we can and are ready now to let it 'clear away' if that is what is to be.

GM: A little background on you? Where do you hail from? How did you decide to pursue dance -- and not
just dance -- but modern dance? How did you happen to come and settle on Cape Ann?

CT: I grew up in the farmland of New Jersey in a small town named Cranbury. I was very athletic (soccer, track, and skiing) but I was not very competitive. What I liked about sports was the thrill of movement, not victory. My senior year in High School was a time of religious questioning for me. I was "searching for something" build my life and beliefs around. I looked all around me and saw many people not very happy with the choices they had made in their lives, particularly in work. I wanted something meaningful; something that would last my lifetime. I happened to stop into a dance studio on my way home from school one day just to inquire, the Princeton Ballet Society. I took a jazz dance class and liked it, no I REALLY like it. At first I was a total klutz. I could barely put one foot in front of the other but afterwards, going home it felt like I was flying (my father?). I saw the Alvin Ailey Dance Company that Spring and that was it! I had to dance! In college it was 1 then 2 then 3 days a week. Soon I left school and went to NYC to dance professionally. That was 1973 and I haven't stopped since.

I came to Cape Ann with my wife, Patricia Poore in 1990. I have three sons (two with Patricia), the oldest is 20 and the youngest is 4.5. We came here from NYC after William, our first, was born. We found Gloucester to be big enough to move around in but small enough to be neighborly, just right for two jersey kids.

Not wanting to commute to Boston,  I had to find, or make, some kind of dance environment to work in here.  Looking around at who was already working in dance here I met Ina Hahn, Dawn Pratson, Barbara Matera, Janet Craft, Kristen Ledson and many more. Dawn and I started looking for a space in Gloucester just as a friend of hers was leaving a second floor loft on Main St. He had a karate dojo with mirrors and fans. Perfect for a dance studio. We "borrowed" a stereo from a defunct bar and opened Dancers Courageous Studio in 1992. We picked the name to honor the vision that Rudyard Kipling, and so many other writers, have of seafarers as the bringers of sustenance from the deep, unfathomable oceans of the world for the benefit of all. That is how I see artists also.  Kind of heroic, I admit, but honest.

I have always been fascinated by towns and their underlying stories. Gloucester provided me with ample material to explore. I met Celeste Miller here and she helped me put what I was feeling into a cohesive framework called Community Arts. I started an organization called Gloucester Legends. Its mission is to find ways for Gloucester to articulate (in an honorable way) its own history to the world, instead of the world telling Gloucester what is it.

A school program and a performing group is the result of three years of development. Clear Away is the pinnacle of my vision of Community Arts to date, art by and for the people of the town in which it is made.

GM: How is the dance studio going? Any new trends like a rise in the number of boys who take dance classes? Can you describe the typical child who might decide to go to classes for modern dance? I'm curious as to what type of a kid would make that decision.

CT: Dancers Courageous is doing quite well. I feel as though we have a niche in the community now. We serve a very diverse group of people from toddlers to adults (and seniors).

I started a movement program for boys called Power Moves. I tried to combine everything I knew about dance with everything I knew about raising boys. I stirred together storytelling, dance, gymnastics, some martial arts and music and came up with a class that works with boys as well as girls. My primary objective is to help young people learn to view their bodies as vehicles of communication, rather that violence or abuse. I want to give boys particularly a powerful alternative to competitive sports. I would never want to replace sports in a child's life, just give them an alternative. We also offer more advanced classes for children who want to go further with dance as an art form.

Our adult classes are strong in modern,  ballet, jazz, and fitness. The adult classes also support the performing company, giving students a goal to strive for. All of the programs at Dancer Courageous tie together and support the one central theme: We are all communicators. Let's learn to speak clearly!

GM: If you could tell readers the most important thing about modern dance, what would that be?

CT: Modern dance has the ability to bypass the intellect and communicate directly with our gut feelings. It teaches us how to articulate clearly what we want to say. And it empowers us think deeply about things and then to speak our minds for the benefit of all.

GM: Anything new on the horizon after Clear Away?

CT: Yes. Two projects are in the conception phase. One is a show about the loss of livelihood and its effect on individuals and community. Something along the lines of the book "The Hands of Silas Marner." It would look at the deeper meanings of the word "disability" and involve people who have direct experience in a variety of ways.

The second is a piece about the Pentecost when tongues of fire descended upon Christ's disciples and gave them the gift of universal language (dance?). David Bergeron [Choir Director, Gloucester U.U. Church] and I are talking about collaborating on something that might be performed in a church and also tie into the St. Peter's Fiesta.
(To contact Carl Thomsen).