Saturday, October 25, 2014

Wagging the Dog

Denise Clarke, co-founder of Calgary's legendary One Yellow Rabbit and virtuoso solo performer, recently had a really bad year. Out of that personal funk comes wag, currently playing at the Firehall through this evening.

The show, which features Clarke's signature blend of spoken word and movement, is essentially a meditation on the creative process. This is encapsulated in part via the text projections looping on an upstage screen as audience members file to their seats, including the following maxim from Radiohead's "Pyramid Song": "There was nothing to fear and nothing to doubt." As the houselights dim and a bright snowy vista appears on the screen, Clarke enters upstage left, swaddled in a bulky parka. She tells us via the head mic hidden underneath her hood that she is crossing the park that separates her home from the studio where she is going to build a new piece. She is cold and depressed and not at all looking forward to the blank space of creative nothingness she is sure awaits her at her destination. Along the way, however, she is distracted by the honk of a goose, which then prompts her to take proper notice of the beautiful blanket of pure white snow that covers most of the park. Too pure to leave untrammeled--and so Clarke deposits her knapsack on the pathway and leaps into the deep abyss of both her immediate physical environment and her mental grief, counting on her muscle memory to help her find a way to move through each.

This is the first of several scored movement sequences that recur throughout the piece. Each is comprised of a relatively simple repertoire of expressive poses and gestures that get repeated at least twice--either to the refrain of Clarke's voice identifying what she is doing or listing off a series of book titles, or to the specific time signature of a well-known piece of music, such as Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" or "The Emperor Waltz." The point is neither the complexity of the choreography nor the virtuosity of Clarke's dancing (although she remains at the top of her game); rather, the point is that we are witnessing Clarke find her way back to joy through movement--something the dogs in the park, if not their owners, instantly intuit. The show stages this kinetic process of discovery less as a way of feeling better than of feeling tout court.

Which makes me forgive the piece's somewhat clumsy climax: Clarke, in a salmon pink chiffon ball gown, suddenly joined by five other female dancers who descend to the stage from the audience, don their own dresses (and, in one case, tuxedo pants and shirt), and accompany Clarke in a spin around the room to the aforementioned "Emperor Waltz." But, then again, why should I begrudge this? As Clarke demonstrates in this show, sometimes it's a lot more fun to move through life in 3/4 time.


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