There’s something sad about clowns.
Perhaps clowns are intended to be figures of happiness, but behind the red noses, brightly coloured costumes and big smiles looms an eagerness — perhaps even a desperation — to evoke laughter, to please and to be loved. It’s this tension between performativity and desire that choreographer Jennifer Dallas explores in Known, a new work by Kemi Contemporary Dance Projects presented at Artscape Youngplace in Toronto.
The set simultaneously evokes a charming dollhouse and the sterility of a hospital playroom: an enclosed room with soft grey walls and floors, three white paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling, a white kitchen table with scattered wooden chairs, stringed white fairy lights and a large piece of tinfoil-like fabric stretched lengthwise across the back of the stage. It sits empty as the lights dim until Jolyane Langlois breaks the fourth wall. She walks in through the back, dressed in a long and heavy black fur coat clashing with her red clown nose and asks an audience member to shut the door. She is all wide eyes and breathiness as she walks onstage, pausing at moments with a hesitant smile as she gazes around.
She is soon joined by four more clowns: Jessie Garon in a box-shaped yellow dress; Sahara Morimoto in an eclectic mix of a green blouse, black and gold skirt and blue printed pants; Ann Trépanier in a peach suit with a woolly yellow hat stretched over her head and neck; and Jaz Fairy J in a printed maxi skirt and grape coloured shirt. Together they form a dysfunctional clown family, performing for both the audience and each other as they attempt to gain favour and take centre stage.
Langlois is observant and encouraging, sending compassionate smiles in the direction of her fellow clowns; in between moments of lyrical movement, she sits perched on a trunk with her knees crossed, one foot twirling. Morimoto’s clown is a bratty youth, seeking attention with flailing limbs and outstretched arms, while Fairy J’s performance is regal, her head held high as she struts across stage holding her skirt. Garon is anxious and uptight with small jerky steps and raised shoulders, frustrated as Trépanier steals the spotlight: standing in a trunk on wheels, she sails across the stage with arms extended and head back, a mischievous grin on her face.
Low rumblings sound during the opening, followed by a mixture of video game music, acoustic guitar, playful jazz and sparse piano. Much of the action concerns negotiations regarding a bowl of oranges: who has the oranges, who can eat the oranges and to whom the oranges rightly belong. Trépanier continually sneaks them into her pockets — to great audience laughs — while Langlois tries her best to make them communal, angling for a shared sit-down meal, which almost immediately gets interrupted. The oranges can be viewed alternately as sacred objects and, more sinisterly, drugs fought over as the clowns struggle to get their fix, a view made more vivid when Garon begins to compulsively pull tinsel out of her pockets and hat. How the oranges and tinsel are read has high stakes for the piece overall: is this a work about innocent domestic sparring or a darker examination of addiction? The equal validity of both interpretations is one of the piece’s greatest strengths.
After the group descends into a frenzy, eating oranges and gulping down glasses of what, again, could be water or alcohol, Langlois is left alone onstage. The tinfoil sheet falls into an extended shimmery silver backdrop as she dances and drops into a heap on the floor. The others join her, now dressed only in black and red. Choral music begins to play as the clowns take up a chant; Langlois gives Morimoto the black fur coat and sits down among the audience to watch. The others help a delighted Morimoto onto a high windowsill before exiting.
It is not a flawless production: the choral singing at the end grows tiresome, and the piece drags at other moments due to excessive repetition. While it isn’t exactly a dance piece, perhaps incorporating more movement, particularly towards the end, would help reduce the monotony. Ultimately, the production succeeds through the interplay and individual strength of the five performers and their capacity for humour, surprise and pathos as they negotiate their own roles and needs.
Known is a work that invites a suspicious reading, asking the audience to prod the surface and examine what’s underneath. On the surface, it’s a work about clowns. Looking beyond the red noses and bright costumes, it might be something different altogether.
Ann Trépanier in Dallas’s Known / Photo by Melanie Gordon