Vanessa Valliere, Pivot Arts performer and clown artist, talks about what influences her work with Pivot Arts Director, Julieanne Ehre.
JE: So, let’s get right to it. Your work involves a lot of dolls. Where did that inspiration come from?
VV: The first professional solo show I ever made was actually inspired by a very 50s looking pink chiffon dress that I found at a costume sale. I picked it out, tried it on, and couldn’t help but think, “Something really terrible should happen in this dress.” It was just so perfect and clean and “pretty.” I decided I should have some kind of attached twin while wearing it. I wanted the twin to be kind of …parasitic… I wanted the head to look like it was malformed and growing out of me somehow. I originally wanted it to be a potato with eyes or some other misshapen thing that I would eventually eat… but I’m not great at building stuff and just couldn’t figure out how to do it. So. It became a doll. I started to doubt whether or not the doll would be interesting. But then I cut off its leg and glued it to its head. I was still skeptical. But then I glued a weird little patch of hair to the side of its head – just randomly stuck it there… and I was like, “Yes! YES!” I figured out a way to pin the doll’s head to the shoulder of the dress and then the two of us performed a routine in which we lip synched “Sisters” from White Christmas. I was surprisingly into the doll’s nasty, creature-like, appearance. Since then, I have used dolls a lot because some of them are just super crazy looking. It’s strange to me that you can pick them up – mostly used and abused ones from thrift stores- and they will absolutely tell you a story about themselves.
JE: I’m wondering how being female impacts your work as a clown. The first time I saw you perform I felt totally inspired watching a hilarious and fearless female performer who was not afraid to be, well, gross. Growing up, were you always the girl in the room that was unafraid of going against gender expectations or was that a hurdle you had to jump?
VV: Probably the most direct conversation between performing and being female happened when I first joined Mucca Pazza, a thirty-piece circus punk marching band for which I am a nerd/clown/cheerleader. The first time I ever saw Mucca, one of the cheerleaders was wearing a brightly colored sweatband on her forehead, a tshirt, a tennis skirt, maybe some glasses? And she was just pacing and pacing back and forth in front of the stage – not dancing… just pacing. She was all hunched over and looking at the ground like she was trying to work something out. But somehow she was absolutely in the world of the music and of the band and of the experience and I thought, again, “YES.”
I don’t want to see another cheerleader being a cheerleader. There certainly isn’t anything wrong with cheerleaders. I’m talking more about the “pretty girl in pretty outfit” scenario. I’ve seen that before… a lot. And I am bored by it. If this band was a band that played great music but also had a couple of girls on stage just trying to be pretty in their pretty uniforms… I would have been turned off. But instead, here was this crazy woman with a totally interesting inner life and a unique relationship to these roving musicians… Like the clown at the circus, she was my connection to the impossible trapeze and high wire feats because she was me: flawed and ridiculous and unique.
When I joined the band I struggled a lot with the uniform. It took me at least a year to figure out who I was in the band. Initially I tried to swing the pendulum pretty hard, working completely against the uniform, but eventually the culture of Mucca, the transcendent nature of the music, the wide open happy audiences, a little bit of clown training in being “present”, let me swing to a more useful middle place where I found myself being the person I am when I am unconcerned about pretty or ugly or anything else female’s are often taught to care about. Gender is inevitable a part of all of my experiences. But I feel true to a very specific self when I am with Mucca – and it just so happens that my initial inroad to that space involved a relationship to gender expectations.
To answer the second part of your question:As a kid, I often remember thinking, “that doesn’t make sense” about all kinds of things related to the unfair treatment of people. Girls have to go in a separate room to learn about periods? That doesn’t make sense. Grown men who love each other can’t live in the same house and love each other for the rest of their lives? That doesn’t make sense.Sometimes I spoke up loudly about it and sometimes I quietly tried to puzzle it out. I remember very specific moments of bafflement,frustration and rage. But unfortunately I also remember times when Idid exactly what all the other girls were expected to do because I just wanted people to like me. I like to think that I am more likely to speak and act out now. But I’m sure I also have moments when I could do and say more. Lindsey Noel Whiting helps me with this. She directs my solo shows and she’s fiercely smart and articulate and she helps me find the words.
JE: Your work is very funny but can also be a bit frightening and dark. How do you balance humor and tragedy in your process? Is one an outgrowth of the other?
VV: It is easiest to talk about this in regards to “Nice Try” – a piece in which I do some stuff that could easily be called “dark” or “frightening.” For example, I do actually cut open a doll’s head and remove her brain. When I originally made this piece, I used to just reach into the doll’s head, as though it were simply “open” and remove the brain. But a friend and colleague of mine named Jonathan Taylor said, “If you’re gonna go there, you’ve gotta go there. You’ve got to stab it open. Use the knife. Cut her head open.” He was right. I think the moment could be called dark because it has a violence to it and because I have anthropomorphized the doll and made her a character in the show. BUT the world that I am operating in is so bizarre… Nothing is really happening in the reality we all live in. It is a place where things are definitely happening in front of you but they also potentially function on a metaphorical level as well. By the time I reach for the knife, the doll has berated me on several occasions for doing things that make me happy, that make the audience laugh, and that give me joy. For me, she is that inner voice that tells us we’re not good enough, that we have no expertise, that we’re not interesting, that we’re “weird.” Some members of the audience wince in the moment that I grab the knife and some yell, “DO IT!!” Either way, it’s pretty great.
Also, the clown character I tend to play likes to do things she’s not “supposed” to do. She starts off meaning to do the “right” thing. But there is so much more FUN in doing exactly what she wants to do. I want to do exactly what I want to do. I want to present you with this beautiful little doll who sings this beautiful little song. Isn’t she cute? Isn’t she sweet? Look how tiny she is! Gosh, I just really really want to eat her little head so much she’s so delicious looking.
And so that’s what I do. I suppose that’s dark. But it just feels really right. I think we all have versions of that. Right?
JE: What do you want the audience’s take-away to be after seeing you perform? What kind of relationship do you hope to have with the people watching?
VV: I would like people to walk away feeling empowered to be whatever weird or weirdly ordinary person they want to be. That sounds corny but I guess when you really mean something it can come out really corny sometimes.
As far as relationship goes, I would like them to have that same feeling you have after you talked to a stranger at a party and you’re kind of surprised at how much you laughed, how easy it was, and how weirdly fast you both said kinda private things about yourselves. That’s a REALLY tall order and definitely the IDEAL version. I would also settle for a happy moment of solid eye contact or just one big laugh.
JE: Finally, the clown car. Ever been in one?
VV: I was in a car that Jimmy Slonina was driving once. He’s probably one of the best clowns I know. But. It was a rental. He didn’t own it. And it was just like, four people. And it was a clown in a car. But not a clown’s car. Or a “clown car”. So. I guess that doesn’t count. Nevermind.
Vanessa Valliere will be performing her piece YOUR BEST SELF in our Cabaret Show on November 19 at Uncommon Ground-Devon. (Photo Credit: C.B. Lindsey)