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Clown School

There’s more to clowns than masks and white-face. Matt Trueman talks to the artists who are using their training in France’s grandes écoles as a springboard for innovative new writing.

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dinburgh is no place for coulrophobes. Each August, the city is invaded by clowns – a plague of the buggers. Year on year, they flock to the Fringe: the pierrots and harlequins, the buffoons, masks and mimes. There are rustic fools lugging battered suitcases, red-nosed naïfs desperate to please and, most grating of all, ‘Burtonesque’ white-faces, their eyebrows pencilled into position. “Ugh,” exhales Valentina Ceschi, one half of the performance duo Dancing Brick, “White-face is so cringe. It really doesn’t appeal to me. It’s like rent-an-aesthetic.” Thomas Eccleshare, the other half, gives a little shudder at the mention of it. As graduates of the famous L’Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris, Ceschi and Eccleshare have good reason to be sceptical. Lecoq’s methodology is often misappropriated as a catchall shorthand term for this sort of work. It has a vague whiff of the continent, blending different European traditions—Italian commedia dell’arte, classical French mime, Ancient Greek masks—that also form the backbone of the Lecoq training. “Not once in the whole two years did we paint our faces white,” Ceschi contines, “It’s just the idea people have of it.” Caroline Horton, who trained with one of Lecoq’s best-known former students, Philippe Gaulier, is more forgiving: “I’ve seen amazing white-faced clowns, but then I’ve also seen a lot of mediocre ones… What feels strange is when it’s used as a fixed style, regardless of the story that’s being told.” No one can accuse Dancing Brick of that. The duo—who met at Lecoq in 2007—have a real knack of finding their own spin on classic techniques and routines. Their last Fringe show, which won them the Arches Brick Award in 2009, involved two ice dancers skating on in a world without ice. Wearing ice skates and fixed smiles, the pair tottered and tripped around the stage, desperately trying to maintain poise and grace.

Above Mess

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Their latest show, Captain Ko and the Planet of Rice, explores aging and memory loss through the filter of science fiction and space travel. “In science fiction,” says Eccleshare, “the protagonist isn’t aware that these things are impossible. If the planet you’re on starts doing strange things, you don’t think it’s your problem. Similarly, when someone sees an 80 year-old in the mirror, but thinks they’re 23, it’s a real thing.” Horton is arguably more classical, but still resists being pigeonholed. In 2010, she won The Stage’s Best Solo Performance

award for her clowning portrayal of her French grandmother in You’re Not Like the Other Girls, Chrissy. She clowns beautifully, with a sense of always holding in an imminent explosion of excitement. In her new work, Mess, which plays at the Traverse, she’s using clowning techniques to explore anorexia – something that may strike people as counterintuitive, but, like Dancing Brick, Horton sees her training as a springboard. “I use some of the skills I learned from Gaulier, but people can be quite purist about it and I don’t think that’s helpful.”

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Fest Preview 2012  
Fest Preview 2012  

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