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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the January 15, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Martha Clarke’s Dance-Theater
A gossamer white scrim initially separates the audience
from the players in Martha Clarke’s "Vienna: Lusthaus (revisited)."
Like a veil that separates us from a waking dream, it’s a barrier
we both fear and long to cross.
Set in fin-de-siecle Vienna, "Vienna: Lusthaus" is an elegantly
disturbing dance drama suffused with the trappings of that bygone
era — frock coats, canes, camisoles, and acres of lawn cotton
petticoats. But the veil of separation between then and now is illusory.
For "Vienna: Lusthaus" has an awful lot to say about where
we stand today. Clarke powerfully evokes pre-World War I Vienna —
Europe’s historic cradle of culture — as a place where middle-class
pleasures and intellectual pursuits are enjoyed alongside the gathering
forces of fascism. Her vision is tailor-made for our turn-of-the-21st-century
Written in 1985 and first produced in 1986, "Vienna: Lusthaus"
was revised and restaged at the New York Theater Workshop in 2002
(hence the "revisited" addition to the title). Now the show
has been remounted for its first U.S. tour that begins at McCarter
Theater and continues to four cities, including Chicago and the Kennedy
Center in Washington, D.C. McCarter hosts two performances, Saturday,
January 18 at 8 p.m., and Sunday, January 19 at 2 p.m. (Management
advises that the show contains nudity and adult subject matter.)
The single stage setting is that of a spacious but stark white drawing
room; its odd geometry evokes the inherent imbalance of the moment.
"Vienna: Lusthaus" opens with a gathering of six lovely gowned
women and six men in military uniform and a single outsider. Over
the course of 32 brief, interlaced vignettes, the work explores the
unconscious world of Vienna at the beginning of the 20th century,
a time and place, where, Clarke says, "Freud and fascism meet."
Clarke employs music, dance, mime, and a marvelous melange of texts,
both original and historic, to create a snapshot of the European milieu
out of which the art, political ideals, and unprecedented bloodshed
of the 20th century were born. Stage tableaux evoke the mood and imagery
of the paintings of Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt, contributing to
a brooding, sensual, and erotic mood. Cutting back and forth between
characters and locales, we eventually arrive at the knowledge that
in this overheated world of pleasure and provocation, military service becomes
the sine qua non of full citizenship. And those unable to serve —
such as the flat-footed Jew — will forever be denied the dignity
of such citizenship.
Clarke’s collaborators — composer Richard Peaslee and writer Charles
L. Mee — lift "Vienna: Lusthaus (revisited)" above much
of Clarke’s brilliant but imagistic work. Themes and ideas arrive
by way of text as well as movement. Mee has scavenged his texts from
letters and diaries of the Viennese nobility, the casebooks of Sigmund
Freud, the writings of Richard von Krafft-Ebing (author of the 1886
tome, "Psychopathia sexualis") and dreams that came to Mee
during the writing process.
Clarke’s "Garden of Earthly Delights," fueled by the haunting
beauty and morbid imagery of the epic painting of the same name by
Hieronymus Bosch, with a score by Richard Peaslee, was presented off-Broadway
in the 1980s. While extraordinary in conception and visually compelling
in performance, the work was not supported by text and, as a result,
seemed intellectually limited in its scope.
The "Vienna: Lusthaus" ensemble features actors as well as
modern dancers. The gem-like vignettes — some spoken, some in
movement, some in music — are interlaced to create the aura of
both propriety and decadence, conscious and unconscious desire, security
and fear. Characters and their stories, movement motifs and visual
imagery, appear and disappear, connect and disconnect.
One of the show’s most pungent movement passages is George de la Pena’s
tour-de-force evocation of Austria’s famous Lipizzaner dancing stallion
in which the dancer manages to convince us he is both horse and master.
In another trompe l’oeil male solo, a single seated dancer uses his
boot-clad hands to amuse and muddle our powers of perception.
"I don’t like Johann Strauss… I don’t like tropical flowers…
I don’t like mother of pearl," says one well-dressed Viennese
woman. Crochet, tatting, antimacassars, an overfilled rooms are also
among her least favorite things.
At one point a gentleman in evening dress tells a story about his
night at the opera with the information that a casual acquaintance
"flew through the air across the seats, put his hand in my mouth,
and pulled out two of my teeth." Is this fantasy, fear, or pathology?
Juxtaposing sexual innocence and erotic exploitation, chivalrous honor
and military brutality, Clarke succeeds in depicting a time not unlike
our own. For both Clarke and Mee share a deep concern for the future.
"The world today, like the world at the beginning of the last
century, is on the verge of coming apart," writes Mee. "I
see civilization sleepwalking to the edge of doom, then and now —
of shattering into a thousand nightmares, of falling into global mayhem."
The cast features Jenny Bacon, Erica Berg, Elzbieta Czyzewska, Edmund
Davys, Richmond Hoxie dancers Rob Besserer, George de la Pena (a
former soloist with ABT who played the title role in "Nijinsky"
by Herbert Ross), Gabrielle Malone, Momchil Mladenov, Paola Styron,
and Julia Wilkins.
One of the original members of Pilobolus, the dance-theater
troupe founded by students at Dartmouth College, Clarke’s career has
consistently explored an original esthetic sense that is a synthesis
of dance, music, drama, and design. The recipient of a MacArthur "genius"
Award, she has created and directed theater works that include "Miracolo
d’amore," "Alice’s Adventures Underground," "An Uncertain
Hour," and "Vers la flamme."
She also works in opera with companies that include the Glimmerglass
Opera, Canadian Opera Company, and the English National Opera. Her
choreography has been performed by the Nederlands Dans Theater, the
Joffrey Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Rambert Dance Company, and
the White Oak Dance Project.
Obie Award winner Richard Peaslee has written music for Clarke’s "The
Garden of Earthly Delights," "The Hunger Artist," and
"Miracolo d’ Amore." He has also composed for Peter Brook/Royal
Shakespeare Company productions. Other commissions include one from
New York City Ballet for David Parsons’ "Touch."
"Vienna: Lusthaus" was Charles L. Mee’s first work when it
premiered in 1986. Since then he has become known as one of New York’s
most prolific writers. His "First Love" opened the 2001-2002
season at New York Theatre Workshop, while the production’s companion
plays were produced this past winter: "True Love" at the Zipper
Theatre and "Big Love" at BAM’s Next Wave Festival.
Over time, Mee has developed a style of patchwork composition influenced
by the collage are of Max Ernst and Robert Rauschenberg, both of whom
include the discarded detritus of the real world and call it art.
"That appeals to me personally as well as esthetically," he
told one interviewer.
"I looked for imagistic texts, and because I had worked as an
historian, I turned to historical sources. People speak history; we
do all the time without knowing it. Our culture speaks through us.
Later I realized that `Lusthaus’ was less an historical account of
pre-war Vienna than an exploration of the unconscious world of the
city that gave birth to Hitler, Schiele, Klimt, and Schnitzler. I
began adding descriptions of the dreams I had while working on the
piece. The text combines fantasy and history and breaks down the divisions
between our waking and sleeping worlds."
Clarke’s dance-drama is one that follows its audience home from the
theater. Don’t be surprised if it joins the world of your dreams.
— Nicole Plett
91 University Place, 609-258-2787. Martha Clarke’s dance theater work
opens its U.S. tour. $30 to $40. Saturday, January 18, 8 p.m.
and Sunday, January 19, 2 p.m.
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