“To dance is to spring from the hand of God.” — Paulus Berensohn, March 19 2013
I was a little apprehensive when I met Paulus Berensohn, both the legend and the man. He strode into my lecture at Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina where I was the writer in residence in 2014 with a huge colorful carved staff that was practically his height. It seemed as though a Technicolor Gandalf had emerged from the woods. Afterwards he complimented me on my lecture, noting that I spoke for 90 minutes without notes. I apologized; it was supposed to be 45 minutes.
My apprehension came from mutual friends who had suggested that I was too polluted by decadence (being a New York art dealer for three decades can have dire consequences) to commune with a soul so pure, this priest of Zen. My first surprise as we sipped scotch with orange juice (his drink of choice, better than you may think) was that he was so worldly, wily and seductive.
We bonded at first, not over ceramics, but on the New York dance scene of the mid 50’s which was his first career, success both on and off Broadway. I am writing a biography of photographer George Platt Lynes who was documenting the dance world from 1925 into the 1950’s. Paulus did not meet him, he died the year after Paulus graduated from Julliard but many characters in my study were his colleagues, friends and acquaintances. His stories were racy and mesmerizing (interrupted by Karen Karnes who called briefly and hearing I was there sent her love but brought us back to clay).
Paulus was set to play the role of Riff, leader of the Jets in West Side Story, but once in Hollywood Jerome Robbins the film’s choreographer and director was smitten with handsome, boyish actor Russ Tamblyn who took over the part. “Not even a dancer, Paulus sniffed, “he was an athlete.”
The conversation drifted on to clay. In 1974 Paulus’ book Finding One’s Way With Clay was published and became a cult classic. He made pitch pots but they were less important to his message: what the experience of touching, squeezing, shaping and containing mean to the human spirit. He traveled the world giving workshops that shared his expansive, gentle life-enhancing life views.
An absorbing documentary on his life and views, To Spring From The Hand: The life and work of Paulus Berensohn, was recently released. The Pulitzer prize-winning Poet Mary Oliver says of the film:
“Paulus Berensohn, whether he’s speaking, slowly and thoughtfully as he does, or just smiling, is a gift. With his presence, life takes on a new radiance and energy. He teaches. He shines. Anyone who misses Neil Lawrence’s wonderful documentary of Paulus has missed one of life’s extraordinary meetings.”
The two hours we spent together fled in a second and I look forward to a return visit to Penland (Berensohn does not travel any more) but until then, when I think of him I will occasionally pour myself a scotch with a dash of orange juice. You should give it a try. I promise you that it’s better than you think.
This is a good moment for Mr. Berensohn’s voice to take over. Above is a ten-minute summary of the film, connect and enjoy.
Garth Clark is the Editor-in-Chief of CFile.
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