Steve Clorfeine’s life as an artist is underpinned by his deeply felt spiritual beliefs. His introduction to the Naropa Summer Institute in the mid-1970s led to an association with dancer Barbara Dilley and with performance artist Meredith Monk, both of whose companies he joined. A performance artist in his own right, Clorfeine has taught theatre and storytelling workshops both in the U.S. and overseas. Trained in the Tibetan Buddhism and Shambhala traditions, he incorporates his practice in the various courses he teaches, including meditation, improvisation, and writing. Among his numerous published works are the poetry collections Simple Geography, Together/Apart and Other Poems, and While I Was Dancing.
Terry Stoller spoke with Steve Clorfeine in December 2019 about his interest in sports and dance as a youth, his association with the Gurdjieff Foundation, his experiences at the Naropa Summer Institute, his performance work with Barbara Dilley and Meredith Monk, and the multiple tracks of his life as a performance artist, teacher, and writer.
Terry Stoller: You grew up in New York City, and you’ve said your parents were culturally involved. They did folk dancing, and you accompanied them to local folk dance groups. But you also said you didn’t think of that as something you would do with your life. What were you thinking you would do with your life?
Steve Clorfeine: I remember that by the time I was 11 or 12, when people would ask me that, I would say, I want to be a beach bum. Ultimately, I would I say I want to be a baseball player. I was an avid baseball fan. I loved playing ball, any kind of ball, basketball and all the variations of ball that we played in those days, punchball and slapball. At my grandmother’s place, we would play stoopball. Those were my two stock answers.
It sounds as though you were very athletic as a boy, dancing and playing ball. Interestingly, later you get involved in physical performance.
I don’t think I ever made that connection to a career or a vocation. My sister was the one who could have been a professional dancer. There was some influence there. She was taking classes with Donald McKayle at the New Dance Group. I would watch her choreograph pieces in the living room. I would put the record on for her and also dance with her.
My father was a really good social dancer. By the time I was 12, I was social dancing a lot. We had a cohort of kids who would have socials at different apartments on a Friday night, and we would put on 45s and dance. I remember going on a dance TV show called The Clay Cole Show. That carried on into junior high school. In high school, everything stopped. I went to Stuyvesant High School. It was an all boys school at that time. It was very competitive. I was doing what I thought I was supposed to be doing, studying as much as I could, getting the best grades I could.
When you were at Stuyvesant, did you have an idea of what you were studying toward?
No clue. I knew what I liked. I liked language and literature and history. In those days, it was common and more than acceptable to go to a liberal arts college and get a liberal arts degree.
Were you writing then?
I was always writing, but mainly for writing classes, papers, essays. I remember my last year and a half of college, I wrote what I consider to be more visionary papers. I was doing seminars at the University of Rochester. It was a very intellectual college. My major was intellectual history. There was something that really clicked for me in that. I’m not sure I’ve ever put it to great use. Except in the various ways I’ve been teaching in my life.
During my junior year, I studied abroad in Paris. And at the end of that time in Europe, I did not want to come back. But I went back. I was miserable. Then I was pretty much pressured into going to graduate school to avoid the draft. I had to think about what I would do in a graduate school. What I could truthfully say for myself was that I love to travel and I love to interact with people. If I had to say something, I’d say, I’d like to work for the United Nations, although I had no idea what that would entail.
Now they call that International Relations.
That’s the school I was in at Columbia, the School of International Affairs. When you entered that school, you had to choose a regional institute of specialization, and I chose the Eastern European Institute because during my traveling time in Europe I had fallen in love with Yugoslavia. We drove along the coast of Yugoslavia, and it was my first taste of the way people lived in villages. It was a fishing culture. I was completely charmed by it. When I got to the School of International Affairs, I was the only one in the class who had a beard, and I knew that I was out of place. I was still struggling with depression, not knowing what I was doing, and not wanting to be in graduate school. I was living by myself in a studio apartment on the Upper West Side and going to Columbia, and it was boring as hell. The teachers—law professors and international relations people—were reading from the books they had written. In one class the professor told me that because I had been involved in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee [SNCC], I would never be allowed to work for the United States in the United Nations. That sealed the deal, and I realized this was not for me.
Despite the risk, I would have dropped out had not the 1968 student rebellion occurred at Columbia. I got very involved in that, and I wasn’t depressed anymore. I had a girlfriend. I was arrested. I got very active in the community. It was an exciting time. There were three of us from the School of International Affairs who were arrested; we had joined a sit-in in Fayerweather Hall. Later the dean of the school interviewed us about coming back to finish our program, and I got a full scholarship. I just basically made up the courses I wanted to do. One of them was Balkan folk dance because there was a master teacher at Barnard, and I was able to do a real training. I think that was my entrée to formally dancing.
When did you begin teaching Balkan dance?
That came in 1973 when I was teaching at the State University of New York at New Paltz.
At what point did you get involved with the Gurdjieff Foundation?
That was in New York City, but it actually had started in Rochester. There was a large Gurdjieff group there. I had a distant cousin who was married to one of the leaders of that group. I would hang out with them, and I didn’t know it was anything spiritual. I just thought my cousin’s husband was a really cool guy. He gave me different tasks to do, which were Gurdjieffian tasks, but I didn’t know that. They had a lot to do with paying careful attention to things, a kind of active mindfulness. Slowing down was also part of it. They were very slowed down. They were careful about what they did and how they did it, and what the roots and sources of things were.
At that time, I had a near death experience in Rochester. I was very vulnerable. I contracted spinal meningitis. I got to the emergency room just in the nick of time. That was a wakeup call for me.
Had you studied Gurdjieff in school?
In those days, one wouldn’t have read about Gurdjieff. It was really secretive. My parents didn’t know. My colleagues didn’t know. That’s the way it was presented to me.
That sounds like a cult.
It had that overtone. I had this connection from Rochester, but when I asked if I could be part of the Foundation in New York City, I was told to meet a woman who would be wearing a certain color coat in the lobby of a certain hotel. And that’s what I did.
What were you finding in that group that appealed to you?
I think I was aware of something very unsatisfying in my being—and nothing I was doing or would be doing was going to change that. It had to come from somewhere else.
From 1971 to ’74, you were on the faculty and later the director of the Experimental Studies Department at New Paltz. That must have been a really good job, but you left it.
That was probably the only full-time job I’ve had in my life. I think I already had an inkling that I was not going to be happy in the academic world, even given the freedom I had. But that freedom was coming to an end. The State University was coming down on that program. I knew it would soon be over
How did you hear about the Naropa Summer Institute?
The last class I taught at New Paltz was called Autobiography of a Search, and I was kind of outing myself as a Gurdjieff person. We were reading Western autobiographies of spiritual people and during that semester the news about the first summer program at Naropa was circulating. Toward the end of the summer I called someone I knew at Naropa doing the program, and said I want to come out there. I went there for the last two weeks of the program, and that’s where I fell into everything that was to follow. That was the beginning of my exposure to Buddhism, to Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, to Allen Ginsberg and the Beat poets, and simultaneously my introduction to performance because I worked with dancer Barbara Dilley that summer. For two weeks, I worked with her, and at the end of it I was so moved by what we were doing.
Would you describe what that was?
We were doing movement improvisation basically, but it had a theatrical aspect to it because the movement was all pedestrian movement. It wasn’t about being a dancer. It was about engaging in relationships through time and space. It was something that Barbara was exploring for herself, having come out of the Merce Cunningham company and out of this improvisational troupe called the Grand Union, which was very attractive to me. I feel like I privately mentored myself by watching that group perform. At the end of those two weeks in the summer, I said to Barbara, I’m moving back to New York City. I’d like to take class with you. And I remember her saying, I want you to. But first I hung around out West, went to Oregon and New Mexico. When I was in New Mexico, I got a letter from Barbara saying, I have a performance at the Kitchen in November. I want you to be in it. I came back to the city at that point and did that performance—which was the first performance at the Kitchen when it was in SoHo—and then I continued to work with Barbara. It was all improvisational movement. There were structures, but there was no set movement.
How comfortable were you doing that?
It was edgy for me because I was such a newcomer to that world. This was SoHo in its heyday, 1974, 1975. I was a newcomer to the avant-garde, and I was surrounded by dedicated experimental artists.
Weren’t you involved in experimental studies at New Paltz?
I was. I created the ethnic dance and music program. That’s when I invited Brenda Bufalino to teach, as well as a Native American dancer, an East Indian dancer. I was teaching Balkan dance, and I was taking tap and jazz with Brenda.
How did you meet Meredith Monk?
The second summer of Naropa, I went back as Barbara’s assistant. We rented a big house together, and everybody came through that house as guests—and Meredith came. I remember she was sitting on the front step with her suitcase when I came back from class. We immediately started talking about Gurdjieff. That was the ground of our friendship. I remember stage-managing the performance she did at Naropa. Through the house, I had also met Lanny Harrison who was an original member of Meredith’s company. Lanny and I were performing with Barbara. And through that, Meredith invited me to be in her company. Lanny and I would go on to tour and perform together from 1987 on.
Was Meredith Monk’s company improvisational?
Not at all. We improvised a lot in developing characters and pieces, but on the contrary, Meredith’s work was set to the nth degree—it was very precise. I can still remember the timing of entrances I made 150 times over a period of the first two years, and then ten years later for a revival.
You were also working with Ping Chong.
Ping was in Meredith’s company. When I wasn’t working so much with Meredith anymore, Ping asked me to be in one piece, then a second piece with him.
Were you studying while you were working as a dancer?
I went back and studied techniques as best I could: ballet, Erick Hawkins, anatomical release. I knew I was catching up. I was also taking voice lessons. Later on, I was studying with a well-known drama teacher, Ada Brown Mather. She came out of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, and she came to New York for half the year. I studied with her four or five years, which was not my cup of tea, but I loved what I was doing. She was very interested in meditation, through me. We had a real friendship, which was sweet. I hung in with her for all that time, even though memorizing lines and scene study didn’t feel like a way forward.
What do you think you learned from working with Meredith Monk?
The longer I live, the more respect I have for what I learned from Meredith. She could be really tough, and I pushed back. What I learned from Meredith was precision, timing, design, the ingredients of experimental theatricality that had nothing to do with scenes and lines. There was almost no text in the work that Meredith did. Vocal sound, but very little text. I never said a word in any of her pieces. Very few people said more than a line here or there. What I brought to Meredith, from working with Barbara and from my own background, was presence, and the work with Meredith enhanced that. I think all the people in the company knew how to radiate presence in performance.
In the late seventies, you started Shambhala training and by the mid-to-late eighties you were an instructor. Did you stop performing?
I didn’t really stop. The one time I stopped was when I went to a three-month Buddhist seminary in America. That was a difficult break because I was on a roll. I remember being cast in Jean-Claude van Itallie’s production of The Tibetan Book of the Dead at La Mama. It conflicted with the seminary, and I said no.
Appearing in that production might have been a good career move. Do you know why you made that choice?
The career move that it would have been was in the back of my mind, but it never came to the front of my mind. Something in me has always pushed back from ambition of that kind. I played my part. I got grants. I did work. I got reviews. But I don’t have that personality, and I knew that all along.
What did you do at the seminary?
It was an enormous amount of sitting meditation practice, but it was also studying Buddhist texts, listening to talks, being part of a seminary environment, but very social too.
Were you looking toward leading meditation groups?
I was not thinking I was giving up my performing career or my teaching career. The ground for those tracks were laid in a parallel way from the beginning, from my Balkan dance days, although everything has been coincidental.
You produced a performance piece titled Blue Serge Suite, which was semi-autobiographical and included film.
The first iteration of Blue Serge Suite was in 1979 at St. Mark’s Danspace. Then I revised it and made my first film in 1981 and performed the piece for two weeks at the Warren Street Performance Loft. Making that film came from the influence of Meredith. I had two friends who were in film; one was a film editor, and the other was a cameraman. It was February and we went out to film at Brighton Beach. The section we were filming was a movement piece. It was windy, and the cameraman filmed with sand blowing on the camera, and it was beautiful. I still love that film. From then on, every piece I make has a film in it.
I’ve gotten the impression that your performance workshops are mostly improvisational.
What I’ve been teaching all along is improvisation. In Europe, it’s called physical theatre, movement theatre. For myself, I’ve only done small pieces that have improvisation in them. Any larger piece is structured.
You worked in Kolkata and Kathmandu in the 2000s as a cultural envoy.
Those were commissions. In Kolkata, it was a six or seven week project, and I was working with undergraduate and graduate students in the theatre department at the major university in East India. It’s called Rabindra Bharati University. The origin of it is Tagore and his family, whose properties the universities were founded on. Nobody said what kind of piece I would be making. I had to figure that out myself. I’d worked a lot in storytelling and personal storytelling. I knew I wanted the piece to involve personal storytelling. I also knew it was risky because Indian people don’t talk about themselves the way we do. I had a hope that a younger generation of students in a theatre program would be game, and eventually they were.
The first thing I asked them to do was to tell a story about something that happened in their childhood that was transformative. I would get stories about stealing mangoes from the neighbor’s yard and bringing a cat home, things like that. I did say that’s not what I mean, but I couldn’t describe what I meant. There was a language issue. Then in one rehearsal this young man, Anirban, who later joined the Indian National Theatre, told a story that was spontaneously multilayered and full of conflict that was not stated as conflict. And I said, that’s what I’m looking for. The next day another young man came up to me after class and said, Can I tell a dream? And I said, Please. He told a dream that was also multilayered in that way. And then people started to come forward a little bit more. The women were reticent. One woman who was in a theatre company, and had been since she was a child, really encouraged the women to come forward. There was a woman who was a kind of outsider, and she told a story that had the implications of being an outsider. Another woman told a story about coming home from school and accidentally walking into the back room of her house and seeing her uncle hanging from a rope. These are things that are not spoken about in Indian culture. Those stories were told, and they performed them.
Don’t they have a different performance practice in India?
I had four weeks to train them in physical improvisation. They were like nobody I ever worked with or will work with again. They were so facile in movement. On my website there are videotapes of the two young men I mentioned.
In 2015, you curated a show at Westbeth called Correspondence, and you mounted it later at SUNY-Ulster. Is this another track you’re pursuing?
Yes and no. I’ve been doing collage for many years on and off. I came back to it about six years ago. I also had saved pretty much every letter that had ever been written to me. Blue Serge Suite has a section with a box of letters in it.
I was really wanting to get rid of these letters. Especially the love letters. That was an emotional decision. I had to stop knowing they were there for me to mull over. I started playing around with things, and then I started collaborating with Christine Alicino, who’s a commercial photographer. I would set up these shots of different stacks of letters and postcards, and she’d shoot them. Then I had the idea to invite friends of mine who are artists to come over, and I’d dump out these letters and postcards and say, pick whatever you want and make something with them. And then it expanded. I had a fellowship at the Vermont Studio Center in 2014 for this project. Some of the young artists at that residency were so interested in the piece that I asked about eight of them to participate. I got the Westbeth Gallery and had friends help mount the show.
Correspondence is a theme in your some of your other work. You teach writing through the idea of correspondence. And you have a section in one of your poetry books that is your response to postcards.
And a lot of my published work comes out of my journals. I would say that journals are a personal correspondence, basically. I’ve been keeping journals since 1969. At the beginning it was a Gurdjieff task. So for the first five years, my journaling was under that rubric. When I left the Gurdjieff work and started to be at Naropa every summer, the journals became much freer—and they had cutouts and collages in them. It’s been a constant practice for fifty years.
When did you move to Westbeth?
July 2010. What a blessing it is. I grew up in a cooperative housing project called Queensview. The coop owners ran the place through an elected board of directors. Coming to Westbeth was like coming home to a community, where conversations happened in the elevator and in the hallways and at the mailbox, where you knew people by their backs. That was my childhood. When I was 10, my father set up this Sunday newspaper route for me, and I would deliver newspapers in Queensview. So I knew who lived where. I felt there was a special connection to the number on the door and who was inside, the smells that came, who tipped what. I felt I made full circle coming to Westbeth. Until a week ago, I was away for a month and had been preoccupied with what I was doing. And I wasn’t in the theatre group here anymore, and I was missing Feldenkrais classes here, and I wasn’t doing my meditation class. When I came back, I thought, Who am I? And within twenty-four hours, I felt completely at home again.
To find out more about Steve Clorfeine, go to steveclorfeine.com.
To see clips from JHUKI, go to: http://steveclorfeine.com/TRAININGS/KOLKATA/jhuki.html.
Photo credits: Headshot: Liane Stephan; Nomad Project still: Christine Alicino; Correspondence collage: Christine Alicino. All images courtesy of Steve Clorfeine.
Terry Stoller is a Westbeth resident and author of Tales of the Tricycle Theatre.
Profiles in Art, Copyright 2020 Terry Stoller and Westbeth Artists Residents Council