ARTS / Show People: Dance rebel without a corps: 66. Emilyn Claid

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EMILYN CLAID comes on to the stage dressed as an opera singer, in a long dress and bouffant wig. She is the tragic heroine about to die. But before she does, the music changes to bump-and-grind, and Claid switches from diva to stripper. Later, the dancer-choreographer explains: 'What this says is that a lot of people view women performers as prostitutes: they come to see a bit of leg.'

Claid is on tour with Virginia Minx at Play, her one-woman dance piece, based on a range of moods expressed through stereotypes - from the breathy blonde born to serve others, to the mad woman in a red wig who plays with knives, hurting herself instead of others, and who, in the end, performs an Amazonian hunting dance, with blood everywhere. 'I like my work to be accessible,' says Claid. 'Virginia Minx is not high art, although there is a lot of artistry.'

Claid is the Che Guevara of British dance, revolutionising its institutions, its techniques and even its audiences. The revolution began in the mid-Seventies, when she and four others created new dance: dancers were no longer tools expressing the wishes of the choreographer, but expressing themselves. They collaborated with choreographers on pieces that did not follow a narrative line but spread out like a collage. Movements were drawn from everyday life, and performed with a downward sweep of energy, unlike the upward movement of ballet. 'New dance was not where audiences came for a story performed by pretty people soaring through the air with their legs stretched.'

Talking at her south London flat, she looks more an activist than a dancer: cropped hair, glasses, dangly earrings, and no make-up. But she is surprisingly dismissive about her pioneering role: 'We did it not because we had to change dance but because we had to change.' And she hates finding herself in the history books. 'It makes me feel that my dancing life is over, which it is not. I have rediscovered performance with the passion of a 16-year-old, but bring to it the experience of a 43-year-old.'

Even before the revolution, Claid's dancing life had not been conventional. She had been performing since she was six, 'always under pressure to be the best'. At 16, she left London, where she was born, to join Canadian National Ballet (her father was Canadian). But after four years, stifled by the uniformity of the corps de ballet, she fled to the Martha Graham school and plunged into the New York drugs scene, smoking marijuana and dropping acid. Her life was dominated by anorexia. 'I was wrapped up in trying to have the right image and to be the right shape for a dancer.'

At 21, she came back to London a mess. 'I had to stop dancing and sort myself out. I had the body of a young adult but the feelings of a 10-year-old.' After a three-year break, she met Fergus Early, Mary Prestidge, Jacky Lansley, and Maedee Dupres, and together they formed X6, a dance collective and progenitor of new dance. Like her, they were ballet misfits who had had some contemporary-dance training and wanted to make their own statements. They all did everything, taking turns to be in charge. 'I hate collectives and would never dream of working in one now,' Claid says. But X6 gave her a chance to find a balance, and to begin eating. 'In the end, of course, we all got very powerful and there was no way we could hold on.'

They all left to do other things, and in 1981 she became artistic director of Extemporary, a medium-scale touring company. Michael Clark and Lloyd Newson (of DV8) made their first work there, until, she says, they became 'angry and rebellious' and left to work independently. She herself left the company in 1988, and it folded two years later. 'I was very depressed about it. I felt it was all my fault: my ideas were always too far-out.'

During the Seventies and Eighties new dance went through a phase when the movement itself was the most important aspect. 'Dance looked inwards and felt beautiful to do, but because the dialogue of the dance was with itself and not with the audience, people became bored stiff - and new dance got a bad name.' These days new dance is synthesising movement with content: it is more theatrical, more physical, more confrontational. 'The audience's demand for engagement and for wanting to have fun is being met, and people are coming back,' Claid says. As a lesbian, however, she feels she and others like her have still to find an authentic voice - Virginia Minx explores female eroticism not sexuality.

Claid is now artist-in-residence at the Yorkshire Dance Centre in Leeds, but returns to London at weekends to see her teenage son. 'I have so many keys in my pocket,' she says, 'because I never know where I'm staying.' How about at the forefront of new dance trends?

The Place, WC1 (071-387 0031), 8 Mar; Haymarket, Leicester (0533-539797), 24 Mar; Bluecoat Centre, Liverpool (051-708 9050), 26 Mar; Green Room, Manchester (061-236 1677), 27 Mar.

(Photograph omitted)