In a seventy-minute solo, Denise Clarke moves from total despair to life-affirming joy, hitting a hundred shades of feeling and gesture in between and keeping the audience close every step of the way. Clarke’s new work, wag, which premiered in Calgary and toured to Halifax earlier this year, is like a good memoir, a dance monologue sharing a specific time or particular life circumstance and transcending the individual performer’s life to connect to universal human experience or themes.
It has been eight years since we’ve had the opportunity to enjoy Clarke’s solo work in Vancouver. In 2006, she presented A Fabulous Disaster and, once again, I am struck by her authenticity, ease and presence as a performer. At the beginning of the work, perhaps my favourite section, Clarke wears a bulky winter parka, the fur-trimmed hood pulled up, and narrates the set-up for her winter of despair: “It’s so cold,” she says, “so cold my phone froze dead when I swiped it.” A black-and-white photo of the icy Elbow River (or is it the Bow River?) is projected on the back of the stage and helps her animate the freezing Calgary day. Slowly, Clarke deepens and inhabits feelings of misery and gloom to such a degree the sensation creeps like damp-cold throughout the theatre. I find myself wondering if I am depressed or if this feeling is emotional transmission from a skilled artist?
Clarke juxtaposes sadness and humour unexpectedly. She dances jazzy warm-up phrases in the parka, outdoors in a wintry field in Calgary — according to the story, coaching herself aloud and rhythmically capturing the movement with her own mnemonic language. The next day, I remember the details of various scenes as though she had sat in my living room and told me what happened: the one-hundred ducks on the icy river, the Labradoodle in the snowy park, the memory of a warm summer evening and a Salvation Army guy named Major Tom.
Dramatically, Clarke takes a feeling like worry or anxiety, embodies it in movement, tracks and deepens it with her narrative, until these relatively common feelings become the experience of full-scale, life-changing grief. I believe Clarke when she tells us about her brother’s passing in the hospital, how he wasn’t much for family until the end, and how she gently put one hand on his sternum, the other on his forehead.
A longtime fan of Radiohead, Clarke chooses to dance to the soulful, emo music of Pyramid Song, not because it’s depressing she tells us, turning to match our gaze, but because it’s music that feels, and for those unfamiliar, the nothing-to-fear and nothing-to-doubt lyrics were projected on the back wall of the stage, line by line, before the house lights went down and the show began.
Clarke shares just the right amount of personal story, at just the right pace, punctuating the narrative with rhythm, silence and off-the-cuff remarks, before translating it into something bigger, in this case, sublimating her brother’s death with the music of Eric Whitacre’s Sleep, a choir of solemn, near-mystical voices, accompanied by a screen projection of the galaxy, a universe of planets and stars, never dwarfing our existence, but celebrating it. She suspends the monologue and dances, the parka gone by now, revealing more of herself in simple tank top and pants, mourning through gorgeous, evocative back bends, heart and throat vulnerable to the sky, an unusual choice for loss, as though foreshadowing the discovery of joy that surely must follow.
To implement a cheering up-program, the premise of the narrative, Clarke switches up her playlist, dissolving her despair with a 1924 Gershwin jazz composition and a Strauss waltz. She employs an interesting strategy throughout the monologue: she weaves little alerts into the story, details about herself, references of things to come, so that when, in fact, we do hear jazz music, or when she recites, dressed in a coral gown, her incredibly long, cherished book list with customized gestures, or waltzes, big luscious turns and glides to the soothing music of Strauss, we remember the alert, telling ourselves, oh yes, this makes sense, because Clarke told us it would be part of her cheering-up program! “Repetition is pleasurable,” she remarks, performing the list of titles a second time with music, instead of spoken word: Michael Ondaatje, W. H. Auden, Sherlock Holmes and dozens more. And so it is, pleasing, and as diverse as her musical choices.
I won’t spoil the ending for you — it’s surprising and unpredictable. I will say, in case you’re curious, that Clarke wags her tail better than any canine.
The power of music and dance may be the basis of wag’s cheering-up program, but in Clarke’s commitment to her art form, she has also recently garnered major awards. In 2013, the University of Calgary awarded her with an honorary doctorate and the government of Canada honoured her lifetime artistic excellence with membership in the Order of Canada. And here in Rain City, we could do with more frequent cheering up — hopefully Denise returns again soon.