1999 American Dance Festival
Martha Clarke: Art near 'la flamme'
June 17, 1999
By Porter Anderson
(CNN) -- Martha Clarke is an American theater artist who once posed humankind as just one of several "Endangered Species"; made Broadway a home for a writhing "Hunger Artist"; and laid naked some of every lover's most sensual terrors in "Miracolo d'Amore."
Thursday night, she maps out a new intersection of aesthetic terrain -- this time between Russian playwright Anton Chekhov and composers Alexander Scriabin and Sergei Rachmaninoff.
Clarke's "Vers la flamme" is the key world-premiere offering at the 1999 American Dance Festival, a performance-and-training program that runs through July 23 on the campus of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. The piece -- seen at 8 p.m. nightly through Saturday in Page Auditorium on Duke's west campus -- is New York-bound, scheduled for a debut there at Lincoln Center in the fall.
It's hard to imagine a more Clarke-ian title than "Vers la flamme," or "Toward the Flame." Clarke's body of work is an intense, well-muscled and seductive study in hopeful hearts and stubborn drives -- urges that can propel even the strongest of us toward trouble and the weakest of us toward self-destruction.
In this new work, one of her themes is infidelity -- familiar source material to many followers of this 55-year-old conjurer of staged wisdom. The festival recommends her "Vers la flamme" for adults: Neither in theme nor in the fleshly beauty of her performers has Clarke ever hesitated to choreograph what's on her mind.
The modern Martha
Martha Clarke is an authentic auteur, in that commercial and cultural concerns -- such a pressure on so many careers -- mean far less to her than the impulses of what she sees, hears, gathers. Hers are dances of the mind and soul. Clarke's sensitivities aren't so much to the national consciousness as to its more repressed concerns.
The typical Clarke work runs about an hour long, no intermission. "You know, no matter what I do," she once smiled and told an arts writer watching one of her rehearsals, "it always lasts one hour. Do you think this is karma?"
Pop culture rarely enters her performance space. More profound things live there. She choreographs to no Sinatra recordings. An evening of her work isn't likely to go suddenly knees-up with the "fun" piece of the night. Her biggest finishes are devastating. Her most memorable moments depict tiny collapses of delicate desires. They confound you now, worry you later.
She understands dreams. You see yours on her stage.
And in a way, Clarke's background reflects the American Dance Festival's own links with the essential character of modern dance.
The festival traces its beginnings back to 1934 (well before Clarke was around, she'd want us to tell you). That's when another major Martha of U.S. performance art, Martha Graham, found herself in touch with Hanya Holm, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman, three other pioneers of the then-infant American genre, our "barefoot ballet."
Although based in classical ballet and taught in a vocabulary that uses some of ballet's French, American modern dance has a lower center of gravity. Many of its exercises require rigorous work at the barre, like ballet.
But modern dance has less formal, decorative artifice -- it's rarely performed on pointe, for example. At its core is more spinal movement, not the elegant ramrod of ballet but a more natural, bending mode. It's often captured in what's been called the "Graham contraction" of the dancer's back into a curve.
The experimentation underway in the 1930s eventually would ricochet off our shores and turn up in the genius of artists from Marie Rambert and Ariane Mnouchkine to Sankai Juku and Pina Bausch, this year's recipient of the Scripps/American Dance Festival Award.
The precursor of the festival 65 years ago was in Bennington, Vermont. In the intervening years, the festival found a home in New London, Connecticut (near Waterford, where the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center carries on today). And in 1978, Duke and Durham became the annual summer residence of this venerable forum for instruction, study and performance with an emphasis on American modern dance.
Clarke's own link to this work is through her early training in Graham technique at Juilliard and with choreographer and dancer Anna Sokolow -- a prime influence on what would become Clarke's highly emotive base of expression onstage. In the summers, Clarke studied with José Limon and Alvin Ailey, building strength and her sensibilities for the modern idiom.
Her athleticism and training in 1973 made her the first woman to join Pilobolus ("Pih-LOB-oh-lus"), the gymnastic-dance movement company named for a fungus. The current Pilobolus artists will cross paths with Clarke this weekend in Durham, as they prepare for their own festival performances (see our Performance Guide).
Six years later, Clarke would leave Pilobolus, form her own chamber movement ensemble, Crowsnest (with Robert Barnett and Félix Blaska -- still a frequent performer with her). Her own artistry finally took appropriately crippled wing in such solos as "Fallen Angel."
The contemporary Clarke
"The Garden of Earthly Delights" may be Clarke's most widely-known ensemble work, a piece that established her some 15 years ago as a creator of rich and disturbing music-and-movement imagery on stage. In "Garden," she took the fantastic triptych fables of 15th-century painter Hieronymus Bosch as her inspiration. In "Vienna: Lusthaus," she sent her artists onto a blond-wood stage to explore European decadence at the end of the last century.
Although she's based in New York and Connecticut, Gotham's critics haven't always been receptive to Clarke's work. The eclectic amalgam of genres called "music theater" tends to draw sharp reactions, pro or con, in any case. And Clarke's material can be a lightning rod.
In 1989, When "Miracolo d'Amore" was premiered at Spoleto Festival USA en route to its co-producer, New York's Public Theater, some of Charleston's leading lights walked out on its nudity. Her hard-won coordination of human and animal performers in "Endangered Species" -- co-starring Flora, a gifted young elephant -- went largely unappreciated among members of the press at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival.
Partly in response to such reactions, Clarke has enjoyed working in other arenas in recent years -- the Baltimore-born artist has gone to London to direct the Royal National Theater's "Alice's Adventures Underground"; to Beijing for work in opera; to Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, New York, to stage a highly regarded production of "The Magic Flute"; and to Jiri Kylian's Dance Theatre of the Netherlands.
A devotée of Italian food, she cozies up in a barrel-ceilinged tiny trattoria near her Greenwich Village apartment in New York on a chilly evening. It's weeks before the festival premiere of the new piece, the final, inevitable jitters are still a long way off, the choreographer is upbeat. "Can you believe something this good is right here? I mean, don't you think this food is great?"
She chats as easily with her 20-something composer-musician son David Grausman and his girlfriend as she does with the old friends who've dropped by. Her Pomeranian, Sophie, is in a shoulder bag plopped on a chair where she can get easily as much attention as the people at the table.
Clarke talks cheerily of how Rob Besserer -- a dancer who's worked with her in many pieces, including "Lusthaus," "Miracolo" and "Endangered" -- is back with her for "Vers la flamme."
"And I'm using Christopher O'Riley," she says, as live accompanist for the Rachmaninoff and Scriabin piano pieces to which she's setting the work. "The new piece uses lots of Chekhov short stories -- '(The) Nervous Breakdown,' '(The) Grasshopper' and 'Darling.' Oh, and 'Lady With the Lapdog,'" she grins and gives Sophie a pat.
Seeming to travel almost constantly, Clarke is often preceded by the aura of her stagings' seriousness. Her work is famed for its ravishing evocations of longing and grief. Sexuality and death frequently come together in her stage pictures; passion can chatter away as misleadingly as the "ersatz Italian" she had her performers speak in "Miracolo"; disappointment is almost a character in the aching melancholy of many of her works.
And yet, as students will learn when Clarke speaks on Saturday ("Expressionism in Modern Dance," 11:30 a.m. in the East Duke Building), this is an artist driven by a love of life and a wry sense of humor, not by the sense of its futility often touched on in her creative life.
Chekhov insisted he wrote comedy in what to many of us appear to be darkening romances of unrequited loves and lost estates. Similarly, some theatergoers see as negative what really is Clarke's understanding of human optimism: We always pull ourselves together and believe, yet again, that something better is a flame worth flying toward.
This year's American Dance Festival includes 15 premieres in addition to Clarke's "Vers la flamme."
The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane company led off last week with three days of performances, followed by work earlier this week from the African American Dance Ensemble.
Clarke's artists are to be followed by a Sunday night presentation of the Scripps/American Dance Festival Award to German choreographer Pina Bausch, whose Tanztheater Wuppertal is a pillar of international modern dance.
Pilobolus takes over June 22-24, staging programs that include a new work commissioned by the festival as a collaboration between the dancers and author-artist Maurice Sendak.
Japanese performance couple Eiko and Koma are to appear June 28-30 in a festival commission. U.S. choreographer Twyla Tharp's company returns to the festival July 1-3 with a program including a new work. And choreographer John Jasperse makes his festival debut in a newly commissioned work.
Another new work gets its premiere when Philadanco (yes, from Philadelphia) dances, July 8-10. There's an American Dance Festival teaching faculty concert set for July 11. And the David Dorfman Dance ensemble is set to perform its new festival-commissioned work July 12-14.
Argentinian choreographer Brenda Argiel brings her starkly contemporary imagery to the stage July 15-17. A trio of new international pieces commissioned by the festival is to be performed July 20 and 21, the work of choreographers Ma Bo and Li Han Zhong of China; Tatiana Baganova of Russia; and American-born Barak Marshall from Israel.
And the seminal Paul Taylor Dance Company closes the festival with performances July 22-24 that include premieres of two festival commissions.
For American Dance Festival ticket information (subscription season packages are available, as are single-performance tickets), contact the box office at 919-684-4444.
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