Bill Irwin: The Dancer Inside the Clown

Bill Irwin, right, with David Shiner in "Old Hats," photos © Joan
Marcus

One of the best dancers in New York wears an old bowler hat and big floppy shoes. But when he starts moving, you’re transfixed. Whether he’s frantically sliding under the stage curtain, tapping out a rhythm, or playing a nerd trying to do a Charleston (as in this delightful YouTube clip) there’s a quality of movement that is as masterful and as poignantly human as that of any great dancer. He has a goofy waywardness that harks back to Ray Bolger or Dick Van Dyke. And when his legs suddenly release with a soft, circular energy, you could swear he’s studied Trisha Brown’s collapsing techniques.

Irwin, who is also an actor, writer, director and MacArthur fellow, has studied different forms of dance including modern, tap and hip hop. Back in the day, he was part of Oberlin Dance Collective (now ODC Dance) when it was still at Oberlin College.

Bill Irwin, left, with David Shiner

Irwin is well aware of the fertile ground for funniness when you juxtapose a clown and a ballerina. We saw the happy result of this in Time It Was/116, a duet collaboration with New York City Ballet star Tiler Peck that was developed by Damian Woetzel at the Vail International Dance Festival last summer and later performed at Fall for Dance. “Laughter is all about context,” Irwin said in our pages. “You juxtapose a corkscrew movement from vaudeville with a perfect développé, and one or the other is possibly going to be funny—and it might be the développé.”

In that duet, Irwin was ageless. Watching him with the scintillating Tiler Peck, you don’t think “young vs. old;” you think "clown training vs. ballet training." But eventually the categories break down and both performers are game to do both. Watch this delightful video of them working on the duet with Woetzel at Vail.

From now until April 3, you can see Bill Irwin at Manhattan’s Signature Theatre in Old Hats, a reprise of some of the hilarious performances he’s done with David Shiner, plus a new presence in the form of singer Shaina Taub. Click here for tickets.

Dance Magazine cover, Sept. 1989

 

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