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Misfit Body of the Clown – 7 rings

Case Studies – A Dialogue with Jos Houben

As stated before, I will establish a reflective dialogue with Jos Houben and his master class the Art of Laughter[5]. His approach to the comic body presented in this master class has many points in common with how I presented the work demonstration. However, my approach is directed related to the clown, while Houben’s can be seen and used in many other comic characters or in the training of a comic actor. While I talk about the comic body and principles of practice of the clown, the Belgium actor shows principles of practice of the comic body in general. The case studies are meant to show principles of practice applied to the body of the clown.

The first parallel I want to trace is the idea of different regions of the body that, once modified, can change the way your body is in the world with other people and objects. He implies, and I agree, that modifying the position of specific parts of the body is a way of highlighting some incongruence that can make the body look comic. Houben says: “changing the position of any of these parts, changes my whole relationship with the world”. I am suggesting that the clown has a very peculiar relationship with the world and part of this peculiarity is manifested in the body of the one who embodies the clown. The change in one of the regions provokes a misalignment or a re-alignment of the body that reveals the clown identity. I am suggesting that the disruption of the acceptable way of positioning your body in the world brings to light some incongruities that characterize the clown figure. There are other factors related to attitude, and the way the clown’s body get involved while performing a task, that must be taking into consideration when we analyze the comic body of the clown. These other factors will be part of the general analysis of the principles of practice of clowns.

The Regions of the Comic Body

Jos Houben states in the beginning of his presentation:“There’s three levels that are of importance. The feet and the knees (…) The pelvis. Then there’s the chest and then there’s the head.”

It is important to realize that he speaks of three levels, or three region of the body, and shows four. In my presentation, the Researcher presents the concept of a clown’s body reading and the Seven Rings of the Clown. This concept is actually a methodology “under construction” inspired by the seven rings of tension of Wilhelm Reich[6]. My approach to the comic body of the clown suggests that there are seven rings, or specific regions of the body, that can be worked on in order to bring to light a comic quality of the body of the performer. These qualities, despite the general approach, are particular and private to the body where the clown becomes manifest. This implies that the seven rings can be identified in every body despite the individual and personal qualities of the body. (clip) Houben brings the focus to three (or four) regions that, depending on the change imposed by the performer, can highlight some comic qualities of the body. The seven rings of the clown are related to his vision but more defined and developed. The seven rings of the clown shown by the Researcher are: 1) The base (the feet, knees and legs); 2) The pelvic area; 3) The abdominal region (front and back); 4) The chest; 5) The neck. and the facial rings 6) The mouth and 7)The eyes. Four of my rings are directly related to Houben’s levels. The feet and knees (ring one); the pelvis (ring 2); the chest (ring 4) and the head (rings 6 and 7). In my approach, I am including the abdominal region (ring 3) and the neck (ring 5). In subdividing “the head”, I suggest the “reading” of two facial rings: mouth (ring 6) and eyes (ring 7).

The Belgium comedian uses all the seven rings of the clown in his presentation but he talks about four of them in particular. He talks about the relationship of our verticality as human beings and “dignity” (clips: We are vertical, no roots and the base is smaller than the top. We are obsessed about verticality) When he speaks about the first ring (base or feet and knees) he says: “[the walk] it was just like a signature, I can see you in a crowd from a mile away, my mother. Because that’s the way she walks, and only she walks like this.“ The Researcher in Collisions 2012 says: the walk is like the clown’s greeting card. The walk is the link with the clown’s personality. As Jos can see his mother miles way because of her way of walking, we too can recognize some clowns by their walk. The walk of iconic clown figures of the silent movies were described and analyzed by many clowns theorists. Clayton’s definition of Chaplin’s clown, the Tramp, is remarkable: “His waddling walk and the dog-like way he stretches his legs … his peculiar method of navigating corners at speed, by hopping on one foot and jutting out the other at an angle” (2007:5), (clip KID)

In this rare clip, Chaplin teaches the passengers of the White Star Liner “Olympic” how he did his walk. We can see that all the passengers that tried to walk like him had a different perception and interpretation in their bodies of the Tramp’s walk. There is even an anecdote that in the Lucerne[7] Chaplin’s annual contest Chaplin himself entered the competition and came third.

Buster Keaton’s walk is compared to a machine, reminding us of Bergson’s statement that “[t]he attitudes, gestures and movements of the human body are laughable in exact proportion as that body reminds us of a mere machine” (2008:15).

Agee’s description of Keaton’s walk-as-machine found in Clayton’s book:

His short-legged body was sudden, machine-like angles, governed by a daft aplomb. (…) When he ran from a cop his transitions from accelerating walk to easy jogtrot to brisk canter to headlong gallop to flogged-piston sprint (…) were as distinct and as soberly in order as an automatic gearshift (2007:25)

The first ring of the clown’s body reading is related to the base of the performer’s body. It has to do with grounding or lack of grounding. Grounding, in the sense that the relationship linking the body in action and the ground, is balanced or out of balance. Feet, knees, legs and tights make the connections from the ground to the pelvis and upper body. Some of the articulations (bones and muscles as well) in the lower members when changed from the daily to some extra-daily[8] use suggest a dance-like movement or as Houben says: “All these hinges … allow us to compensate. That’s why we don’t fall over, when something goes forward something else goes backwards. Head goes forward the pelvis goes backwards. We can compensate. We kind of undulate through life.“ This “undulation” or “dance around the central axis” happens in the whole body but it is the lower ring that makes the connection with the ground.

Groucho Marx walks as though he is always about to fall, projecting his head forwards and but compensates by projecting his pelvis upwards. (clip)

Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks is a classical example of how “serious” the silly walk is for the development of the nation. John Cleese includes the silly walk in the list of priorities of investments of the government, together with education, housing and health. Jokes apart, as if it was possible in the analysis of Monty Python’s clip, we can notice that Cleese’s walks are caricatures of normative walks, or exaggerations and dilatation of movements in the lower ring that makes the whole body looks funny. The actor’s serious face works as a bodily contradiction, reinforcing the incongruence of the action. One of the most interesting things about this clip is Cleese’s analysis of the not-silly walk. He says: “The right leg isnt silly at all and the left leg merely does a forward arial half turn every alternitive step”. The sequence that follows the “scientific approach” is a hand full of examples of silly walks with a highlight in the duck-walk. Behind the joke, Cleese was showing us what “works” and what “does not works” in a funny walk. He shows us with his examples that it is not just a matter of physicality (yet, is in the body the the silliness is revealed) but it is also a matter of timing and attitude.

As stated before, change in one ring changes the whole alignment of the body. The next ring to be analyzed here is the second ring or the pelvis region. Houben uses the example of two Greeks meeting on the street showing cultural differences in positioning the pelvis. The Researcher shows his interpretation of an adolescent body and the way it is positioned in the world. This ring is clearly linked with sex and sexuality. However, it is also linked to scatological functions like defecation and flatulence.

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