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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

Vienna: Lusthaus (revisited), McCarter Theater,

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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