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Claire Elizabeth Barratt's Performances Defy Bounds Of Time, Space, Audience

Matt Peiken | BPR News

Claire Elizabeth Barratt once drove alone from Asheville to Albuquerque, N.M.—26 straight hours—without stopping except for gas.

“I’m actually thinking of maybe doing a cross-country trip as a durational performance,” she said. “Just doing the whole I-40 coast to coast and calling that the performance.”

That view of her art—at times defying conventional boundaries of time, space and even audience—is among the traits stamping Barratt as a solo performance artist unlike any other in this region. She’s a dancer without a company, a sculpture without a pedestal. She might wrap herself in paper, plastic or holiday lighting or project images or video onto her body.

She traces her beginnings in performance to early childhood, but only in recent years came to understand her art is about transcendence and metamorphosis—evolving in the moment into a new consciousness.

“Creating costumes, making videos, creating sound, all of those things are an extension of performance, which originates for me with movement,” she said. “But (that) has now really extended into all those other elements just because of needing all those elements to fulfill the complete vision.”

Barratt grew up in England, in an intentional community just south of Liverpool, and went to a school connected with the Royal Academy of Dance.

“I used to create these little shows. I’d do like salon performances whether people liked it or not when we went to people’s houses,” she recalled. “‘I have to perform for you, I have a costume. I have to perform in your living room, right now,’ and I haven’t really changed much since.”

Through teaching exchanges, Barratt’s father came to the United States at different points in the 1980s. Toward the end of the decade, Barratt came to visit him at UNC-Asheville, marking her introduction to the area. 

“I was kind of restless while I was living in London. I had been a pretty bad student,” she said. “I got really heavily into the alternative lifestyle there, the squatting scene, the acid house culture when it first started in London. That was a big part of my life.”

It also provided shaped Barratt into the artist she is today.

“The intention of that kind of music is really to carry the body into dance. It carried me, for sure,” she said. “It becomes a trance. Obviously in that culture, there are drugs, as well, but I think even without the drugs, the music itself puts you in that trance and makes you go beyond your body’s natural limits of strength or endurance, and you can just keep dancing.”

Credit Matt Peiken | BPR News
Claire Elizabeth Barratt performing in 2018.

For a few years in the early 1990s, Barratt performed in the cast of “Unto These Hills,” the popular outdoor musical in Cherokee. She first moved to Asheville about 20 years ago and floated between Asheville and New York City, where she worked occasionally as a studio figure model, until just a few years ago, when she took over her parents’ home in North Asheville. She’s now early in the process of turning her house into a retreat and performance lab for visiting artists.

“The whole existence of everything I do is so hodge-podge,” she said. “One day I’ll be getting funding through a National Endowment for the Arts grant and the next I’ll be busking on a street corner.”

While Barratt credits some of her romantic relationships for opening artistic channels, she said they also descended into abuse.

“It very much felt like they were threatened by me and needed to squash me down, and there was no reason for them to be threatened because they were established artists and very much revered and still are,” she said. “I mean, I’ve always had a very strong vision and been determined to follow it, so if anything, it just kind of enhanced that.”

Barratt performs under the name Cilla Vee, drawn from the French phrase “C’est la vie” (translation: that’s life). Other than occasional salons with friends in her backyard, she rarely performs locally, but has toured all over this country and beyond.

That places a special light on the performance she’s planning for the upper-floor oculus window of the Asheville Art Museum. It’s called “Angel of Light.” Between 7 and 8pm March 9, viewers outside the museum looking in will only see the lights Barratt is wearing. She intends her performance as a beacon of healing and prayer.

“Looking up from the Vance Monument, you can see that window and I was like ‘There needs to be performance in this window!’” she said.

Matt Peiken was BPR’s first full-time arts journalist.
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