At the Firehall Arts Centre until October 25, 2014
Posted October 24, 2014
“It’s a poor dog that can’t wag its own tail”, my mother used to say. She wasn’t recommending bragging; she was talking about celebrating one’s own accomplishments.
Dancer and storyteller supreme, Denise Clarke isn’t wagging her own tail – or what she refers to in the show as her “luscious butt” – in the sense my mother meant; she’s wagging her tail out of rediscovered joy in the face of what was for her a very bad year. Losing first her brother and then her father, Clarke invented her own “Cheering Up Program” and is dancing her way back to joyful existence. And she takes us with her in this program that fuses storytelling, dance and movement.
I came close to tears at the beauty of it all: Clarke running, running, running. Long legs, long outstretched arms. And I laughed out loud at her asides: “This is the part where I find out how fucking old I am”, she quips as she does a stretch with her head to the floor, one leg pointed skyward. It’s hard to believe, as the press release states, that Clarke has been dancing and delighting us for forty years.
She’s definitely quirky, one of a kind. Who else would consider ‘dancing’ an entire bookcase of books? For each author there’s a movement that so captures his (mostly ‘his’ not ‘hers’) essence: Chekhov, Proust, Tolstoy and on and on for what seems like an amazing and wonderful hundred books. She dismisses some but praises most in a rush of fluid, perceptive gesture and dance; it’s a remarkable, rapid-fire process that indicates Clarke not only dances ecstatically but she reads voraciously, too. How do you dance Flaubert?
There is no fourth wall with Clarke. We are on this journey from sorrow to joy with her. What I would call her “Dance for Johnny” is so naked in expressing the loss of her brother, Clarke draws us deeply, darkly into her grief – and then releases us. She’s grave one moment and then she’s flippant; takes herself seriously now, and then in an offhand gesture, mocks herself. I think she takes the mickey out of Margie Gillis while, amazingly, celebrates her. And she definitely has a grand time with Strauss, Gershwin, Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire.
Allowing herself to be this emotionally naked on stage is risky but that’s what lean and statuesque Clarke is all about. It may not be to everyone’s taste but those of us who have followed Clarke from what might have been her first appearance here years ago in One Yellow Rabbit’s Ilsa, Queen of the Nazi Love Camp, will love every minute of wag.
What she does with Tales From Vienna Woods comes as a complete surprise and is such good fun; the subtle, unspoken feminist commentary on the world of ballet adds some sharp to the sweet. Nothing in Clarke’s work is ever all this or all that; she’s always dancing on the edges.
Problems with the sound system on opening night and again on the second night frustrated both audience and dancer alike. Hopefully these have been resolved for the last few performances.
Why is it called wag? “Dogs don’t hide their feelings”, says Clarke. Neither does she. And it’s sublime. By the end of sixty-five glorious, uninterrupted minutes, I felt like wagging all over.