For most of “A Fabulous Disaster”, Denise Clarke wears a white paper jumpsuit, with a white hood covering her head. Her costume puffs out around her, making her look bigger than she really is. Clarke’s body language, too, is bigger, more expansive. Her movement has a power that is not just the result of heavy black work boots. There is also something about her upper body, the muscular way she swings her shoulders and lifts her arms. Her hand gestures are weighted and firm; her fingers punch and jab.
Clarke’s brilliant incarnation of a lovesick, manly cowgirl who has just gone through “the second lesbian divorce in history” makes this one-woman show fly. Through the use of gesture, the way she walks and talks, and her frank, revealing facial expressions, Clarke brings her character to life in full-bodied technicolour.
This dear, demented character converses intimately with the audience in a flattened, “Wayne’s World” accent. Unable to recover from her divorce, she has escaped to the forest to fight a raging fire and to save as many animals as she can. Doing this in a paper suit is her expression of bravado, which she hopes will end in a triumphant return to civilization and the warm embrace of her beloved ex-wife. “I am a fire animal,” she bellows more than once, arms raised, hands fisted. We know she is thinking of something strong, like a wolf or a bear. But mostly, with her anxious, scrunched up face peering out from the hood, our hero looks more like the marmot she has told us is inside her, where her heart is.
The sixty-five-minute show is as much theatre as dance – more theatre, in fact, but let’s not quibble. The movement is crucial to the content, and Clarke often uses it to tell or complete an element of the story. A guilty look and a slumped torso before and after she takes a second sip from the precious, dwindling water supply speak volumes. A twitching hand begins a transition to hysteria. Another time, describing the “universe unfolding” in her backyard, Clarke executes a simple turn. The effect is just right – we see something beyond the everyday straight lines people normally travel in, just as the cowgirl saw an unusual atmospheric occurrence. The dance becomes a representation of the extraordinary.
As an actor, Clarke’s movement is always intense and clearly motivated. The Calgary-born artist trained in ballet from childhood and started off as a choreographer and dance teacher. In the early eighties, she began working with Calgary’s One Yellow Rabbit theatre company, and it is the way she integrates these two worlds – dance and theatre – that make her such a powerful, unique performing artist. It was because of her range of movement, and the way she embodied her character so fully, that she stood out in the ensemble of One Yellow Rabbit’s “Dream Machine”, presented at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre in 2003.
In January 2004, as part of Vancouver’s Push International Performance Series, Clarke presented her one-woman show “Sign Language: A Physical Conversation”. Her assured performance brought the opening night audience in the crowded Scotiabank Dance Centre to their feet in a standing ovation. This viewer, however, thought “Sign Language” was flabby around the edges. In the artist’s note from that production, Clarke states, “The goal was to discover what my instrument/body would do when left to its own intuitive choices.” Without the focus of character and with a minimal narrative drive, the dance was vaguely expressive and repetitive; “intuitive”, I suppose. The movement relied on clichés to make the comedy work, and Clarke’s “conversation” seemed an excuse to trot out some uninspired ballet and to showcase her ability to turn like a Sufi.
In “A Fabulous Disaster”, Clarke is still larger-than-life, still the diva that she was in “Sign Language”, but there is an authenticity that comes from serving character and story. This character, emotionally wild and woolly, is a literate, thoughtful urbanite who even attends the ballet. Though obviously an excuse to allow the actor to bring in the ballet world she remains attached to, it only took a small leap of faith to render these traits believable. And it allows Clarke to leap balletically and enthusiastically about the stage as she describes composer Jules Massenet’s “Meditation from Thaïs”.
Toward the end, with the raging fire closing in, there are fears the happy ending may not happen after all. The flames, projected on an upstage screen set between two perfect evergreen trees that make up the only set, are getting bigger. But our hero is brave and has been to the ballet so, if nothing else, she knows how to die.
We hear the sweet strains of the “Meditation”. The cowgirl hears it, too, and begins a dance worthy of the best stripper (the line of work her ex-wife is currently involved in). She balances first on one foot, then the other, gracefully, acrobatically, removing boots, socks, paper suit. Left only in what she calls her “birthday suit”, with the red and orange flames of the fire flickering over her slender body, she falls into the familiar, fluttering movements of Fokine’s “The Dying Swan”, who is revealed as her true fire animal.
The audience loved it, and for dancegoers the revelation had special significance. I thought of the legendary Pavlova, for whom “The Dying Swan” was created, and of Evelyn Hart, who danced it in Vancouver some years ago. The absurdity and beauty of Clarke’s character, the self-acknowledged stupidity of the situation she had got herself into and her romantic avoidance of reality as the fire raged closer, left me close to weeping. A few minutes later, however, I was madly giggling at the latest plot development along with everybody else. “A Fabulous Disaster” is like that all the way through – poignant one moment, smart-ass the next.
A dying swan ends this fabulously funny, insanely poignant adventure. What better way to bring epic, romantic dimensions to the demise of our poor, lovesick hero than through classical ballet?