Thursday, July 21, 2016

In Remembrance: Clown Dimitri

[post 424]

There are professional clowns today who have never even heard of the great Swiss clown Dimitri, though they owe him a big debt. Dimitri died this week at the age of 80 in the Italian region of Switzerland, where he lived and, since 1975, operated the still-thriving Scuola Teatro Dimitri. But he sure should be remembered, because he played a major role in elevating the status of the clown as a performing artist. And I'll tell you why...

Flashback to October, 1975, when Dimitri made his New York debut at the age of 40, performing his one-man show on stage to a packed house at Hunter College. (Yes, I was there.) Sure, Marcel Marceau was filling theatres bigger than that on a regular basis, but Dimitri was a CLOWN, not a mime. Audiences loved him and came away with a heightened understanding of what a clown could be. And aspiring clowns took inspiration from his success and began taking themselves more seriously. This was especially true in the United States, where clowns rarely got to play in theatres. And Dimitri reminded us that clowns were traditionally highly skilled, as he played ten different instruments (including four at a time), juggled ping-pong balls out of his mouth, and performed sleight-of-hand and balancing feats, all to great comic effect, as he got himself in and out of endless troubles.

Interesting connection: It was another great Swiss clown, Grock, who earlier in the 20th century packed European theatres with his full-length show and demonstrated that the clown could be a star in his own right, outside of the circus ring. Early on, one of Grock's whiteface partners was the French clown Louis Maïss  Decades later, after studying with Decroux and Marceau, Dimitri launched his clown career playing the auguste to —you guessed it— Louis Maïss.

Here's what the great Swiss playwright Max Frisch had to say about Dimitri:
Look at him, I say, this is a real clown. But, what is a real clown? I don’t know, but look at him – he can do practically anything, and yet remains calm and serene when he accomplishes something new and incredible. He’s a delight to behold, like watching a child discovering the pits and traps of the world who manages, as though by some miracle, to avoid falling. I was tense during the whole performance until someone started to laugh, roaring out loud as though alone – not how one laughs at a joke, but a laugh of joy, the laughter of a child. I was the person laughing, and the clown was Dimitri.

Thank you, sir!


Ben Robinson said...

This hits me very hard. Maybe the world really is ending. To you John, Fred, Riley all of us lost in this swirling ocean of oddity, at least we witnessed Dimitri.

Rob Owen said...

In 1974 I was in the Air Force stationed in Grand Forks, ND. By some act of God I was not scheduled for alert duty or training for a full week. That week was week 2 of the Mime Festival at Vitturbo College in Wisconsin and I attended for the full week as well as driving down and home two other days for events in the first and third weeks.

I learned a great deal from an amazing array of performers and attendees but Dimitri was the performer that had the greatest impact on me. I was privileged to see him a second time a few years later when he was touring the US and performed at the Dartmouth College Hopkins Center in Hanover, NH.

He was a true clown with a unique character that found the joy and humor in each situation. I wish I could have also seen his performances on Circus Knie. I have seen a picture of him with a Holstein cow in the Knie program that has piqued my curiosity, to say the least.

I am fortunate though that I got to see him twice. May he rest in peace, knowing he left a part of this world much happier for having seen him. Thank you, Dimitri.

Anonymous said...

Good post.

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