Of heaven and hell

Like her latest biblically inspired project, Baltimore native and visionary choreographer Martha Clarke thrives on highs and lows

November 16, 2008|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

New York - The branches are from Connecticut, but Martha Clarke is in hell. Or, she's in paradise. Sometimes, it's hard to tell the difference.

On stage, half a dozen dancers preparing for a new staging of The Garden of Earthly Delights wave bare tree branches aloft, then twirl together in a circle. A highly anticipated revival of the groundbreaking 1984 production, based on a 1504 painting by Hieronymus Bosch, opens Wednesday off-Broadway.

"Stay as close together as you can, girls," says Clarke from the audience, holding her arms in front of her, and then sweeping her palms inward. "And ladies, make a little whipping sound when you run."

FOR THE RECORD - An Arts and Entertainment article yesterday missttated director and choreographer Martha Clarke's current residence. She lives in Connecticut.
The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

In an aside, she explains:

"These branches are new, and the dancers haven't worked with them before. They have to stay in a tight circle without getting too tight, so the twigs don't get enmeshed."

The 64-year-old Clarke, a pioneering director and choreographer who grew up in Pikesville and studied dance at the Peabody Institute, knows all about life's little tangles.

She began her a career as a performer, was a founding member of Pilobolus Dance Theater and later formed her own company, Crowsnest. Clarke's original avant-garde productions, which meld dance, theater and striking visuals, won her a 1990 MacArthur "genius" grant. She's picked up a Drama Desk Award and two off-Broadway (Obie) Awards, and Garden is widely acknowledged as an American masterpiece.

Yet, some of Clarke's pieces have been resoundingly panned. Even today, she has to scramble to find the money to stage her shows. When Clarke recently applied for a position on a university dance faculty, she was summarily rejected.

"They wouldn't even consider me," she says. "I couldn't get an interview."

Clarke might have a MacArthur Award, but, it seems, she doesn't have a master's degree.

"I've had bad knocks, bad shocks," she says. "It's been difficult financially, because my productions aren't thought of as being commercial. I have a dark sensibility. My work is a bit twisted."

But, then, she adds:

"After doing this for 25 years, life keeps getting more delicious. Hopefully, I'm better at my craft today then I was then. The best times of my life have been spent in the studio, working with artists."

It seems that heaven and hell frequently can be found at the same address.

At the moment, both are on the stage of the 399-seat, black-box Minetta Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village. The walls and ceiling are the color of midnight, and the stage floor has been painted a shiny black, which makes the dancers look as though they are floating even when they are standing still. The show starts with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, then progresses to a medieval town where the villagers have fallen sway to the Seven Deadly Sins, and finally, to the underworld.

Clarke's shows are not for theatergoers with delicate sensibilities. Then again, neither is Bosch's almost hallucinatory painting. Neither artwork is well-mannered or polite. Neither stints at depicting the torments of the damned.

"That painting is violent, funny, sensuous," she says. "You could spend a lifetime interpreting it."

Her rendition - which has no text, and is told exclusively through movement, and composer Richard Peaslee's haunting music - involves rape, murder, bestiality and scatological humor. But even the most stomach-churning moments are oddly beautiful, while others are positively ethereal.

Consider that circle of dancers holding the branches: when they pause for a moment, one's eyes are drawn to their bare feet, where veins throb like tree roots.

In a later scene, a woman dangles from a Y-shaped trapeze attached to her waist, while a man grabs her ankles and swings her in circles, her long hair streaming behind her.

Dancer Paola Styron (daughter of novelist William Styron) once performed these scenes. Now, she sits in the audience during rehearsals, where she functions as another set of eyes and ears for Clarke. The two women have worked together since 1983.

"Martha is a great artist," Styron says. "What is so delicious and appealing about her work is that it is a real marriage of dance, theater, visual arts, music and literature. That's heaven for a dancer or an actor, who's usually put into a little box and not allowed to explore other creative avenues."

In person, Clarke is small, neat and compact. But her hair - a mop of golden-brown curls - is as independent-minded as she is. Each strand flies off in a different direction, as if it were autonomous, and unwilling to confine itself to just one style.

From her earliest days growing up as the daughter of a jazz musician-turned lawyer, and as the niece of filmmaker Shirley Clarke, young Martha was artistically minded.

Clarke's cousin is Margo Lion, the theatrical producer who brought Hairspray to Broadway.

"A story I like to tell illustrates the difference between what a producer does and what a director does," Lion says.

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