Jennifer Dallas in Kittly-Bender

Jennifer Dallas


Performed, choreographed and written by Jennifer Dallas

Directed by John Turner

Performer, assistant: Jolyane Langlois

Presented by Kemi and Dance Works Co-Works

The Theatre Centre, Toronto, January 11-15, 2017


Kittly-Bender is a daring meld of equal parts of clown-theatre and contemporary dance. The most affecting clown work tends to combine an alert, blunt fearlessness with incredible vulnerability, and Jennifer Dallas conveys these with power and delicacy. Dallas’ stage presence and expressive movement is a dominating force, counterpointed by intermittent appearances by her lighter, gamin, playful companion/acolyte, Jolyane Langlois. The acolyte’s ministrations and patience knit a charming laciness around Dallas’s darker, moodier manifestations.

The set could be straight out of a 1960s film— a large sunken living room with small staircases on three sides provides a frame within a frame for Dallas’s character’s self-presentation. On the floor rest several large rocks. Dallas is tall, and she is enrobed in a long, iridescent green vest that she swirls and enjoys, while also sometimes wielding it as a kind of protective shield.

The show is divided similarly to the way a symphony is divided— into different movements of different lengths with varied emotional tenors and emphases. The first features Dallas interacting with, lifting, rearranging, anointing, listening to, and trying to engage with the large stones. This is visually arresting, sometimes comical, and puzzling to the audience; yet Dallas and her ritualized attentions to the rocks convince us of their importance. This is the same with a short ceremony of pouring liquid from vessels into silver bowls. The on-and-off soundscape is mainly gentle and haunting, with occasional interpolations of poetic voice, and music that uses instrumentation (harmonica, piano) as well as natural sound (most notably the buzzing of bees).

Then, disco music and flashing lights brighten the mood—photo bulbs flash and Dallas is a star in fur collar and high heels. There are yellow chrysanthemums and snacks, which are shared with the audience. The acolyte bows and assists.

This phase doesn’t last. Dallas takes a singular, large guzzle from a gin bottle. The poetic voice-over, which recurs sparingly during the show, returns with what feels like a lament for not having had children, and in an extended sense, for having neglected family and human connection. Dallas leaves the stage briefly and in her absence her companion covers the floor with thick layers of shredded newspaper. The shreds are like Dallas's character's past glory, unreadable, wrecked and certainly not consoling. Dallas returns, bereft. The rocks, gathered and ordered and pampered, have lost their meaning.

In the final sequences, Dallas is given a broom by the acolyte and sweeps angrily at the piles of crumpled paper, with large wide movements. She discovers a green scarf among the newsprint, and bundles and cuddles it like a baby. The acolyte brings water in a bowl and the two of them bond, ceremonially washing their hands.

The acolyte pulls a release string on a large burlap bag that hangs overhead stage right, and a thin stream of sand begins to pour out, as if from a large timer. Dallas removes her headscarf, revealing baldness. She positions herself beneath the pouring sand, as if sitting under the harsh flow of time passing; sand cascades roughly down onto her bare head in what feels like a punishing torrent of raw reality, a severe reminder of mortality.

On its surface, this show is a deceptively simple parable about life, the choices we make, and redemption, but it reaches inside, to the heart, mind and gut. Full of arresting visuals, Kittly-Bender is hard-hitting, heartrending yet funny, natural and true as a flower, and artificial as a red clown nose.