Meet ABT’s Claire Davison, Who Moonlights as a Clown

March 14, 2023

Ballet dancers sometimes “enjoy” a reputation (undeserved) for being overly self-serious. Not Claire Davison, who, since 2013, has been a standout of American Ballet Theatre’s corps de ballet—and also happens to be a trained clown.

When she’s not rehearsing at 890 Broadway or performing onstage at the Metropolitan Opera House, you can find Davison around New York City participating in clown workshops and creating her own work. She has performed in the artistic salon series Art Bath (which is associate-produced by the Metropolitan Opera Ballet dancer César Abreu), and she created a site-specific physical-comedy piece for Kaatsbaan Cultural Park’s Summer Festival in 2021.

A headshot of Claire Davison wearing a red clown nose and black turtleneck, her hands clasped under her chin.
Photo by Claire Davison, courtesy Davison.

Davison’s creative endeavors criss-cross all sorts of genres, including physical theater, silent film, commedia dell’arte and bouffon (a French extension of clown that’s focused on the art of mockery). She is also a ballet choreographer, having created works like Mais Oui, Dansez! for ABT’s The Innovation Initiative, as well as Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered and Eve for ABT Incubator, and pieces for Boulder Ballet and American Repertory Ballet.

Different as they are, both ballet and circus are in Davison’s blood. Davison’s ballet training began with her mother, Ana Claire, then the artistic director and school director for Boulder Ballet and a former principal dancer with the company. Davison’s father, Peter Davison, has toured the U.S. for decades juggling, clowning and performing physical theater. Davison followed in his footsteps, practicing clown in her childhood and teen years.

As a teenage bunhead with sights set on ABT, Davison temporarily put aside her red nose. “I thought, Okay, we have to get serious. We have to put the blinders on if we’re going to really do ballet,” she recalls. “But when I quit, it backfired and negatively affected my ballet. Quitting clown stripped away half of my personality and artistic side.”

While the word “clown” might conjure images of face paint and sight gags in the minds of many, Davison says the art form can be much more than that. “It’s experiencing truth in front of people—and being seen while seeing.” Yes, Davison can ride a unicycle and juggle and perform various slapstick feats of hilarity. But the lion’s share of her clown endeavors actually centers on character work.

Catch one of Davison’s performances and you might meet The Little Mustache Man (“essentially just me in a short wig with a mustache”), a 1950s housewife with a baby (“the baby messes with her a lot, which is quite fun”), or an enigmatic Russian named Slava (“based on a Russian clown named Slava Polunin”). Many of these characters are inspired by the 20th-century comedienne Madeline Kahn and the Brighton, UK–based physical theater company Spymonkey, as well as classic clown role models like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Davison says.

In some ways, clown provides Davison a creative outlet that’s less restricted by the gender binary than the classical-ballet world of her day job. “Similarly to the ballet world, the clown and circus worlds are kind of male-dominated, in terms of directing and who’s in charge,” she says. She goes out of her way to learn from female clown teachers and work with female directors. “And in terms of my own exploration of gender and clown, throughout one show, you can go in and out of multiple genders or ideas of gender,” says Davison. “If you’re doing red-nose clown, you don’t even have to have a gender!”

Claire Davison in a half-jacket, arms extended toward her right side, holding a white flower.
Photo by Santiago Felipe, courtesy Davison.

Another key way that ballet and clown differ, according to Davison, is in the artist’s relationship to the fourth wall. “Many schools say clown only exists in front of an audience, that you need to have that interaction,” she says. “Whereas with ballet, I don’t think I’ve ever been in a situation where there isn’t a fourth wall! There’s comfort sometimes in that: You can look out into the black abyss and pretend you’re not being watched,” Davison says. “But it is really nice to look people in the face and have that shared community space.”

Davison is grateful to have embraced her clown alter ego: “It’s made me a lot more comfortable in my skin, with my co-workers and in front of an audience.” Expressing herself in this modality also enriches her choreographic work (if you’re in the Twin Cities, catch Davison’s premiere for Ballet Co.Laboratory late this month) and the character-heavy roles she often dances with ABT—think the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet or Berthe in Giselle.

She’s also picked up more than one party trick along the way: “I’m often asked to juggle random things at parties, or do some mime. But when clowns get together, anything goes!”