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Paulus Berensohn: Dancing With Clay

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Paulus Berensohn began pestering his parents about dance lessons at the age of 4. “Boys don’t dance,” was his parents’ response, or, more specifically, “Boys in our family don’t dance.” Despite this, his nagging continued. When a friend of his mother visited one afternoon, Mrs. Berensohn complained about young Paulus’s desire to dance. “But Edith,” the friend argued, “to dance is to spring from the hand of God.”

Paulus Berensohn, who studied dance at Juilliard, poses with one of his clay pieces. A lifechanging event led him to pursue a lifetime of teaching.

(Photo by True Kelly)

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“That was my first art lesson,” Berensohn, 77, said in a recent interview. And with that his decision to dance was solidified. As a student in the Juilliard Dance Division in the 1954-55 school year, his training seemed to be leading him down the road to a professional career on the stage. But a life-changing event landed him dancing most of his life in a completely different environment.

Long before this pivotal life change, Berensohn auditioned for the new Dance program at Juilliard. With only three dance classes under his belt, he found himself auditioning for one of the most distinguished panels of dance artists in the world, including Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Antony Tudor, and José Limón. The prospective students were asked to choreograph an original piece and show 30 seconds of it. “Antony Tudor never looked up from his New York Times,” Berensohn recalled. 

When his turn came, Berensohn boldly stepped in front of the stage and announced, “If you only give me 30 seconds, you won’t see me move because I stand still for the first three minutes.” Tudor lowered his newspaper. Berensohn explained that he used the first three minutes to listen to the music. Graham then asked about the title, and Berensohn won the panel over completely with his reply: “In Memoriam: Kathleen Ferrier.” Ferrier, an English contralto who had recently passed away, was much beloved in the arts community. Impressed that the young Berensohn would have reference to such an artist, the judges watched more than 30 seconds of his piece. 

“But I didn’t really know how to dance,” Berensohn confessed, “so all I did was stand still, run, walk, and fall.” It seems that that was quite enough for the panel, and they accepted him with a full scholarship. However, Berensohn’s limited training presented a huge obstacle when he was placed in intermediate and advanced classes at Juilliard. At the end of that year, Bennington College held auditions for male dancers, and, seeking a slower-paced program, Berensohn transferred there. The connections and friendships that were formed at Juilliard, however, would last throughout his entire life. 

The training at Bennington suited Berensohn perfectly, and as a young, talented male dancer, he was met with an onslaught of work after graduation. It seemed that his path as a professional dancer on the stage was inevitable, but, one Sunday, he and some friends visited the Gate Hill Cooperative, a haven for artists in Stony Point, N.Y. Wandering around the grounds, Berensohn eventually found himself outside the workshop of Karen Karnes, a famous potter at that time. He quietly observed her work and what he witnessed that afternoon changed the course of his life forever. The breath and energy and movement with which Karnes practiced her craft captivated him and he had a revelation about what he wanted out of life. “What happened was a desire to de-professionalize my interest in art,” Berensohn explained. “As much as I admire the technical brilliance of my colleagues, I am very interested in the behavior of art rather than the achievement of art. I see all the arts as apprenticeships for the big art of our lives.”

A desire to spread this philosophy about the “behavior of art” to others has fueled a lifetime of teaching. Berensohn studied pottery at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine, and has created and led more than 30 different workshops all over the world. One of his workshops, Soul’s Kitchen: The Making and Keeping of an Artist’s Journal, serves high-school students who are considered “at risk” and who have “an adversarial relationship with books.” By teaching them how to make a book of their own, from start to finish, their relationship with books is changed forever. Another workshop, How to Love This World: Poetry by Hand and Heart, asks students to copy poems in their own handwriting. This practice allows the poetry to enter their bodies. “Having been a dancer, the element of movement is central in all my workshops,” Berensohn said. In his pottery workshops, the focus is not the clay, but rather the dance involved in handling the clay.

In the end, Berensohn has built a life of dancing for himself, a life that he fought for since the age of 4. He now encourages everyone he meets to look for the ways in which their bodies can be used to make even the most mundane of tasks a kind of dance. “I see all of life as a dance,” he said, and that is precisely what all his classes have shared with people around the world.

 

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