Still Playing: An Interview with Patrick Gracewood

BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT; PHOTOGRAPHS BY GREGORY BARTNING

Watching Patrick and Carolyn dance was like watching two skeletons entangle, two rose bushes weave their branches, or two clouds float together until they become indistinguishable. And yet, they were still two distinct sets of bones with two different histories, two separate rose bushes with two different colored blooms, two autonomous clouds from different sides of the sky.

Besides, it wasn’t so much their togetherness or separateness that made my eyes run and my heart bleed so much as the tenderness with which Patrick cupped Carolyn’s head in his hands.

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When did you start dancing and what have been some highlights along the journey?

I took modern dance in junior college, loved it, but told myself at 19 I was too old to begin. Also, being gay, I wasn’t willing to get hit with the cliché of being a gay dancer. It was hard enough coming out, coming from a very religious, conservative family. So I went for the big-paying career of being a professional sculptor. Sculpture is my other love.

I left Los Angeles in 1989 and came to Portland. It was a big career shift. Working in the film industry in Los Angeles, every time I was done with a job, I was out of a job. Also the sky was falling because of AIDS. So many people were dying. I came to Oregon to start over and had time to do my own sculpture and art, and discover dance again. Contact improvisation allowed me to have my physicality and reclaim my body on my own terms. It’s huge, because gay or straight, we’re so limited in our physical options. Sex or sports? I didn’t want either. I wanted to move, so I came back to dance at 36 and have not stopped since.

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I met Carolyn Stuart at a contact improvisation jam she was hosting. We started performing because we wanted to share what we were doing. It’s been 25 years now. The highlights keep coming because we still discover new ways of moving that surprise and delight us. Early on, we had to agree not to see each other on Thursdays because we were hanging out every day dancing. It still is exciting, but we have to balance that with commitments to children, partners, etcetera.

As I’ve gotten older, peers have stopped dancing instead of changing their definition of contact improvisation. My friend Roy Shabla has a beautiful line in a poem: “If you find you no longer believe, enlarge the temple.”  That’s what Carolyn and I have done as our bodies and interests have changed. We’re discovering different movement pathways that keep expanding.

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What does your current dance practice look like?

I dance four times a week for a total of about nine hours. Two sessions are just Carolyn and me exploring in the studio. The other two are a teaching lab and an open jam.

Have the reasons for why you dance changed?

Short answer: I love dance and I’m getting better at it. Dance has been a way to reclaim my body on my own terms. As I get older, the reclaiming is even more necessary.

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Longer answer: I’m a professional artist and sculptor. I use my body hard daily. My work is very physical – lifting, moving heavy things, carving, etc. Dance allows me to explore my body in very different non-repetitive ways. In this aspect, contact improvisation is my physical therapy. Dance teaches patience and presence. It’s less about striving and more about fully inhabiting any movement. It’s the best anti-anxiety medicine.

I’m interested in the intersection of movement and stillness. Dance and sculpture are opposite ends of that spectrum. My sculpture is about intense stillness and the eternal, whereas dance only exists in the present moment. Both shape how I perceive and use movement, space and time. I’m a better sculptor for being a dancer, and vice versa.

Contact improvisation is also a spiritual practice in that I return to a focused body awareness whether I’m feeling great or wrecked, and can explore all those realms.

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When Carolyn’s mother died rather suddenly, for a month all she could do was lie on the floor. She was devastated, but she let me drag her around. It was incredible permission she gave me, to physically move her by her ankles, by her arms, by her head. We learned a great deal about body mechanics, what it’s like to only contribute 10 percent effort. We created a performance based on those discovered movements.  Our performances grow organically from what we’re working with in the studio and what’s going on in our lives. Often a handicap becomes a gem.

What does success mean to you? Do you feel you’ve achieved some measure of success?

Having our own contact improvisation-based dance company for almost 10 years, Touch Monkey, allowed us to travel and perform on the West Coast. It was exciting but often overwhelming, because I rarely felt good enough as a dancer. When we disbanded the company, I focused on my art career and became a more relaxed dancer with nothing to prove. I’m just starting to discover an opening and softness in my dancing where I’m not all high-tone, not a gladiator. That I’m still dancing at 60 is a success. It’s a gift I have to continue to earn by showing up in the studio.

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Do you have a sense of your legacy?

We leave our movement options and thinking behind. Some of the people who have danced with us have those options in their bodies. We added a little bit to the movement river. Though I doubt you could trace it, it’s there.

Do you think you’ll continue to dance for the foreseeable future?

Yes! The way I dance allows me to adapt as my body ages. I’m growing in awareness and specificity. I keep getting better, so it’s open-ended. No stop date is required.

What advice would you give a younger generation of dance artists?

Give yourself the luxury of play time in the studio to find your authentic voice. Organically grown work has a very different quality from fabricated work under pressure. Both ways have their merits, but I prefer working organically to see what develops.

Meher Baba said, “Dig in one place.” That’s what Carolyn and I have done. We’re still digging through layers of the physical and emotional to discover new things. It’s amazing.

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Patrick Gracewood studied art at California State University in Long Beach, California. He began sculpting professionally for the visual display industry by making mannequins. He’s created sculpture, character makeup and sets for film and television. Since moving to Oregon, he’s built architectural sculpture for historic restorations and new construction. His studio offers his fine art sculpture and relief as well as sculpture services to private clients, architects, designers and landscape architects. He has danced with Carolyn Stuart for over 25 years.

This interview is from the book “Beauty is Experience: Dancing 50 and Beyond.” Click here to learn more about the book, or click here to order your own limited edition copy!