One Yellow Rabbit Performance Theatre’s Denise Clarke has been gleefully upending art forms, and generally revolutionizing what people watch on Canadian stages, for almost four decades. Her Calgary troupe has become known for melding physical theatre, dance, and storytelling in groundbreaking ways. They have been playful pioneers operating outside the establishment. So it was with some surprise, and a great sense of honour, that she learned this year that she had earned not only an honorary doctorate from the University of Calgary, but, just this fall, the Order of Canada.
“The first reaction was ‘Are you sure you mean me?’ ” says the witty, self-effacing artist from her Cowtown home before bringing her new solo show, wag, here. “Following that, it was gobsmacking. But it’s such a nice pat on the back. You don’t get into this business for that—well, maybe if you’re aiming for the A-list repertory-theatre world. You get to do the work you want to do. You’re not in it for the glory.”
Yes, 2014 has been a very good year for Clarke. But the show she’s bringing here is based on an extremely hard year (starting in 2012). “I had some grief in my life,” says Clarke, who prefers that viewers discover the roots of that sadness in her dance-theatre work. “I determined that I needed to cheer myself up and I invented a cheering-up program.”
It’s that program that Clarke invites audience members into in wag. The one-woman show is the opposite of a trip into depression. Based on a true event, it opens with her wearing a big parka on a chilly winter day in an Alberta park, en route to a lonely rehearsal of her new solo show and facing her emotional storm. From there, she mixes monologue with movement, telling personal tales and dancing to everything from a Johann Strauss waltz to hip-hop and George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue—and paying tribute to the art form where she got her start, as a child.
“Even further, it’s an ode to the wildly contemporary postmodern concept of dancing to music!” she says with good-natured sarcasm.
But wag, named for the way a dog can’t hide its feelings, also fetes Clarke’s love of telling stories. So is it dance or theatre, or does she want to defy categorization? “I don’t want to confuse folks,” Clarke says. “I think it’s theatre, it just incorporates a lot of dancing. I definitely think of myself as more of a theatre entertainer than a dance artist.”
And in the end that word, entertainer, which keeps coming up in our conversation, is what has brought such attention—and now big accolades—to Clarke. In fact, it’s a word that inspired wag, too. “I had been thinking about this idea of the entertainer and how hard it is in some circles for people to wrap their heads around the idea of entertainment,” she says, referring to other areas of the contemporary arts. “To them, it means ‘sellout’ or ‘lame’ versus ‘serious’. But I realized I am an entertainer and I always have been, and at the same time I can do meaningful work for myself. But a big part of my—huge quotation marks!—‘charm’ is doing what an audience deserves. I want them to be with me. That allows me to do what I love doing.”
Wag is at the Firehall Arts Centre from Tuesday to Saturday (October 21 to 25).