A former dancer, choreographer and head of the National Dance Association, Shirley Clarke began making short films in 1953 with the seven-minute Dance in the Sun. She then went on to make a series of short films about dance including In Paris Parks (1954) and Bullfight (1955). Skyscraper (1959) traced the construction of a building, used color and black-and-white shots and was made in collaboration with Willard Van Dyke and Irving Jacoby. The film won several festival prizes and earned a 1959 Oscar nomination for Best Live Action Short Subject.
After developing a searing cinéma verité style in her experimental shorts and documentaries, she graduated to features with two powerful pictures, The Connection (1960) and Portrait of Jason (1967). Clarke helmed the Oscar-winning documentary short Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel with the World (1963), which had been commissioned by President John F. Kennedy. Clarke’s provocative subject matter made her a major influence on American underground film culture. While teaching at UCLA from 1975 to 1983, Clarke completed her last film, Ornette: Made in America (1985), a documentary portrait of jazz musician Ornette Coleman and his son Denardo. Clarke died in 1997 after suffering a stroke.