Climb Toward the Flame

Martha Clarke Unbuttons the Fin de Siècle

The last time I interviewed Martha Clarke, she was rehearsing an elephant in Herman Melville's barn in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The year was 1990, and her Endangered Species turned out disastrously. Since then, Clarke has enhanced her reputation for imaginative theatricality by directing operas (most recently Glück's Orpheus and Eurydice for the English National Opera) and choreographing for Nederlands Dans Theater III. This summer we met again in the Berkshires, at Jacob's Pillow, on a sunny morning after a performance of her latest production, Vers la Flamme (which opens Lincoln Center's Great Performers series at the New Victory Theater September 15). Sophie, one of two Pomeranians playing like kittens at our feet, appears in one scene; the previous evening, she'd added a very effective bit of barking.

Clarke began as a dancer, studied at Juilliard, performed and choreographed with Pilobolus, but Vers la Flamme isn't a dance; it's a music theater piece performed by dancers. "I've taken away the word choreographer, because I feel I approach my work as a director now. And there's a difference, because I'm not looking for a lot of inventive movement." For Vers la Flamme, she has paired (dangerously-she knows it) five short stories by Anton Chekhov with piano pieces by his compatriot Alexander Scriabin. There's no text beyond an occasional strangled cry.

Clarke's technique involves blending Chekhov-appropriate realistic behavior with complete loss of decorum. The passionate Scriabin pieces played onstage by Christopher O'Riley scratch at the one and help release the other. In "The Lady With the Lapdog," a married man and a virtuous married woman (George de la Peña and Paola Styron) meet in a picture gallery, their attraction to each other revealed through small gestures, looks, a quick kiss. But after he seduces her, she drops to the floor and crawls after him on her belly, her elegant dress awry. Clarke remarks that she envisioned this disturbing moment as an overhead shot: "I'm always thinking like a camera." Her attention to small detail is, as she says, "filmic," and the extravagant moments in the work approach the physical drama of silent movies, although the performers never cross the line into overacting.

The absence of spoken text (there are plot summaries in the program) entails loss of detail and necessitates certain liberties. "It's the Balanchine thing: there are no brothers-in-law in dance." With only seven actors (Styron, de la Peña, Felix Blaska, Kate Coyne, Margie Gillis, Alexander Proia, and Sean Dalal), she can't show that one of the husbands of the much married "Little Darling" is depressed about his acting company, but she can have Blaska stand numbly in a small pit in the stage floor while a private rainstorm pours down on him. It is enough.

Like Vers la Flamme, some of Clarke's most magical works-Untitled (choreographed collaboratively with Pilobolus members), Vienna Lusthaus, The Hunger Artist, The Garden atVillandry (a ballet that's had a long shelf life)-are laid around the turn of the last century. She's not sure exactly why (choreographer Antony Tudor, a great influence on her, was also drawn to this period). She loves the music (right now she's into Mahler), Egon Schiele and "a lot of what was happening in painting," the whole ferment in Vienna at the time of the birth of psychology. And, she says, "I've always loved the look of the period." I can understand that. The rustling silk dresses and high collars and frock coats of Vers la Flamme, like the middle-class decorum, hide much; besieged from inside by hot feelings, they begin to seem like carapaces to be shed. One of Clarke's greatest gifts is her ability to reveal with subtle brush strokes the tension between society's expectations and the wildness within.

-Tivoli, New York, is a funky little town. Early one summer Saturday evening, a large part of the community is either downing tacos and margaritas at the Santa Fe, across from the Lost Sock Launderette, or crowding into Village Books to toast its owner's birthday.

Closer to the Hudson, down a long driveway, the emergent Kaatsbaan International Dance Center is celebrating some very successful fundraising and adding a little more to its coffers. When Kaatsbaan's founders (Kevin McKenzie, director of American Ballet Theater; ballerina Martine van Hamel; GregoryCary; and Bentley Roton) finally realize their dream, the 153-acre estate will buzz with companies rehearsing, seminars, workshops, and performances. The great Stanford White horse barn will become a visitor center, and a theater will take shape in the gigantic enclosed riding ring.

For this gala, Joanna Haigood of San Francisco's Zaccho Dance Theatre created in five days the site-specific Arena. Haigood was responsible for one of last year's most enthralling works, InvisibleWings (a voyage for the audience through Jacob's Pillow's history as a stop on the Underground Railroad). On a leaner scale, she gives Kaatsbaan a lovely send-off, linking the riding ring's past to its future. Two women put their horses through careful designs. Jennifer DePalo and Robert Wood swing on suspended window frames. Anne Marie de Angelo trots and swerves about, a mock-innocent who's inquisitive about horses and slips through the archway formed by the legs of a laconic cowboy on stilts (Wood). Andre Gingras wire-walks to the rafters to meet DePalo and pass along a horseshoe dug up by Haigood. In the end, van Hamel, who has dismounted from a suspended branch to do some fluid, joyous dancing, puts the horseshoe back where it came from and plants a sapling on top of it. Instead of a tree, there'll be a sprung floor one day, but we all get the point. Strong may it grow!

 
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