Denise Clarke performs in wag at the Firehall Arts Centre
Denise Clarke performs in wag at the Firehall Arts Centre

There is something eternally beautiful about watching a performer who is not only entirely present in what they are doing, but who is clearly having fun.  Denise Clark is one of those performers.  In wag, her one-woman dance/theatre piece, it seems every cell of her body is bathing in each moment. It is also one of the purest demonstrations of transforming pain into beauty I have witnessed.

[pullquote]With a moment of total, surprising delight that ends the show, wag is a wonderful, uncomplicated, sorrowful, funny work.[/pullquote]Beginning with a sort of stream of consciousness monologue where Clark describes her experience walking through a snowy park on her way to the theatre, wag slowly reveals itself to be an exercise in tell, and then show.  This framework gives the audience what Clark describes as “the joy of recognition.”

She’s right, seeing something you recognize on a stage is a wonderful moment, and it is a gift she gives her audience many times throughout the piece.  At one point she narrates a dance sequence that later reappears, set to a piece of music she has referenced at another point.  She tells the story of sitting by a loved one’s side in the hospital, and then transitions into a dance where the gestures she used to tell the story the first time, reappear.

The joy of recognition is, of course, bittersweet.  This is where the pain comes in.  What Clark is really taking her audience through in wag is her self-imposed program to cheer herself up.  She’s had a rough year, one where she says, “I wasn’t sure if I would ever be happy again,” and now is trying to brighten her life back up.  So the recognition comes not only in the moments of repetition, but also in seeing them presented in a context of a deep sorrow.  While the source of her sorrow may not be familiar to me personally, that deep layer of grief or sadness is recognizable to all of us.

It may not be the kind of recognition that makes your inner child pop up in her chair and clap her hands with glee, but  the kind that makes you want to reach out, grasp a hand, and say “I hear you.”  Yet, in a way, it is joyful as well.

Clark is one of the rare dancers who is also a gifted storyteller.  When she dances, the movements are captivating in their simplicity and presence, without a need for fancy tricks or embellishments to keep us interested.  When she speaks, her words and stories have a similar “here I am” simplicity.  Her presentation is unadorned and that’s what makes it so wonderful.

To top it off, she is funny.  From her self-effacing questions asking if the world really needs another solo show, to narrating a sequence of movement with text like “Where’s my vagina? There it is!” and “This is the part where I find out how old I am.”  Woven throughout the beauty and sorrow, in fact, is a hilarious layer of commentary that keeps the entire evening quite light and enjoyable.

With a moment of total, surprising delight that ends the show, wag is a wonderful, uncomplicated, sorrowful, funny work.

wag continues at the Firehall Arts Centre (280 East Cordova St) through October 25.  Visit http://firehallartscentre.ca for tickets and information.