Martha Clarke Essay - Critical Essays


Martha Clarke’s works are in a performance genre that as yet has no name. It is a blending and fusion of dance, drama, music, gesture, light, scenic design, and text into performance pieces that mirror her unique artistic vision. Clarke is in a group of experimental performance artists that include Robert Wilson, Ping Chong, Meredith Monk, and Peter Brook. Clarke’s work as a conceptual director is distinguished from that of her peers by its painstaking use of movement and its density in a typically brief (usually one-hour) performance. Clarke achieves this synthesis of mediums by a collaborative, collagelike approach to composition.

Collaboration begins when rehearsals begin. Each performer, musician, composer, or designer is free to offer suggestions for the assemblage of fragments that will grow into a finished object of art. A long trial-and-error period ensues, during which the director develops movement phrases out of gestures and begins to keep a notebook of the ideas that work in rehearsal. She begins to distill the images and to dovetail the events while she looks for the contradictory images that will give the work texture and solidity. Clarke looks for a through-line that will unify her ideas, and she arranges and rearranges the scenes until they are compressed into their final form. She searches in works of art and writings for ideas that can be interpolated into the work. The final product is the result of the creativity of many people, but Clarke is responsible for the ultimate examination, selection, adaptation, and direction of all the elements.

Traces of Clarke’s earlier work with Pilobolus Dance Theater can be seen in her theatrical direction and in her use of movement within the new works. In one of Pilobolus’s best-known dances, Monkshood’s Farewell, the members of the company, for the first time, began to organize the material with a dramatic logic instead of simply from an abstract point of view. The piece is reportedly based on the work of James Thurber, Hieronymus Bosch (for whose painting Clarke’s work is named), Breughel the Elder, Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400), Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485), and a Craig Claiborne soup recipe, among other things. The four male members of the company joust, using the women as lancers, but later all six appear as the cretinous characters from the Bosch and Breughel paintings.

The Garden of Earthly Delights

In The Garden of Earthly Delights, Clarke uses the Bosch painting as a point of departure for her own exploration and animation of the depicted world. She was attracted to the extremes of human emotion and behavior evident in the painting. The work is conceived as a left-to-right reading of the triptych, beginning in the Garden of Eden. The Garden of Earthly Delights and Hell are interrupted by an interpolation of the Seven Deadly Sins, the subject of another Bosch painting.

The director attempts to extract the qualities of the painting and condense its crowded, bustling panorama by giving Bosch’s figures kinetic life. Though Clarke consulted science-fiction/fantasy writer Peter Beagle, who wrote a book on the painting in 1982, for an interpretation of the qualities in the painting, her approach to the creation of The Garden of Earthly Delights is primarily choreographic. Each vignette in the work has some characteristic movement idea repeated rhythmically until it dissolves to make way for the next image.

In Clarke’s hourlong enactment, seven dancers and three musicians are incorporated into a series of tableaux vivants. The vignettes include scenes of Eve wrapping her long hair around Adam, a serpent who produces the apple from between her thighs, performers who appear as musical instruments and trees, bawdy peasants, putti flying overhead, and angels falling through the heavens, transformed into demons, crashing in midair, and plummeting into Hell. Clarke summons the entire Bosch landscape, from the dreamlike Garden of Eden to medieval poverty to a nightmarish eternity.

The grotesque, acrobatic, and allegorical use of the human body always interested Clarke and the other members of Pilobolus. Clarke’s exploration of metaphorical dance imagery developed differently, however, in the solo works she choreographed for Pilobolus and Crowsnest. Her work is characterized by its use of movement repetition, its languid, deliberate pacing, and the eroticism of the movement images. She believes that the slow pace allows the audience members time to respond to the complete scope of visual and textual associations with their own, more personal set of references.

Vienna: Lusthaus

The pleasure-garden idea returns in Clarke’s Vienna: Lusthaus, but this time, the director has chosen an entire city and culture, turn-of-the-century Vienna, as her point of departure. Clarke had worked at least twice before on a similar theme. One of the first dances by Alison Chase and Clarke, Cameo, was a study of the relationship between two Victorian women. In Pilobolus’s Untitled, two nine-foot women dance about the stage in flowing Victorian dresses until two nude men appear from beneath their skirts. Vienna: Lusthaus conjures an entire world, a dreamlike world of images that gradually shifts from a sensuous dream to an intensely disturbing nightmare, similar to the progression in The Garden of Earthly Delights.

Clarke’s Vienna: Lusthaus was inspired by the art of the period, particularly that of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, and by the political and social atmosphere at the traumatic beginning of the twentieth century in Vienna. The suicide of Prince Rudolf at Mayerling and the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914 provide the margins between which Clarke’s surrealistic series of vignettes is set. Clarke was interested in a closer study of the veneer of graciousness, civility, and manners in Vienna that concealed the dark beginnings of twentieth century psychosis and warfare.

On this work, Clarke enlisted playwright Mee to help develop a performance text. Mee used material from Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), historical sources, and his own dreams to produce a text consisting of reminiscences spoken as monologue. These spoken memories, whose themes are primarily love and death, have an unashamed directness that makes them sound like dreams. Clarke and the performers worked to distill the text into vignettes, which are connected thematically rather than dramatically. Clarke thinks of this as an instinctual process rather...

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