Our conversation with Martha Clarke | Arts

Our conversation with Martha Clarke



I had a good conversation with Martha Clarke last week.

Interviews are tricky. Usually, a publicist will guarantee 15 minutes with your subject.

Think about that for a moment. If an artist’s work has really intrigued you, there’s no shortage of questions. Sometimes you’ve wanted to ask them for years.

You have 15 minutes.

Anything beyond that is entirely at their discretion.

They always seem surprised you’ve done your homework—read the book, saw the performance, heard the music. They always seem surprised you’ve actually been thinking about their art for some time.

If they’re enjoying the conversation—even if they’re challenged by it—it continues.

Sometimes you get the strangest sense: Maybe they don’t get to have that many conversations like this, either.

Sunday morning, May 27, 2007. 10:49 a.m. I’m sitting in the dining room of a house in Jamestown, N.C. Sheafs of papers and DVDs on the upcoming season are strewn across the table. Individual stacks for each artist take every chair in the room and line the floor along the wall.

I’ve been up since early morning, reading more about the first incarnation of The Garden of Earthly Delights, going over my notes from the 1985 ADF performance DVD, replaying sections to check certain points.

It’s time. I make sure the black umbilicus of the Sony digital recorder is attached to the phone.

I call a number somewhere in Durham. Someone picks up. The sound of Pomeranians fills the background.

Martha Clarke is on the line. We speak for a little over 50 minutes.

Independent: I’ll probably want to start off with a few questions about the reconstruction—

Martha Clarke: —actually, re-envisioning—

—of the piece. Re-envisioning?

Well, I saw a theater in New York I was really wanting to do it, two and a half years ago. We were all set to go. And because of the shape of the theater (laughs) I started rethinking it.

The deal fell through.

Which theater?

It was a new theater called 37 Arts. It’s where the Barishnykov Center is. That was the genesis of rethinking it. I have also done a few more shows with aerial work. One of them I worked very hard on, and we thought it was coming to New York—and it didn’t. And I thought, “I had so much fun working on the flying, and learned so much about the potential of it, that I thought the Garden would be a terrific place to expand from.

It was Hans Christian Anderson. It was out of town; it was a bomb. (Laughs.)

Oh dear.

(Laughing continues). Oh, well, we all have them.

Of course… But it seems that the time line for everyone who has an interest in aerial choreography is so steep to begin with, and then to refine it and really go places with it…

It’s very tiring. And my dancers in this company are doing all the technical work of pulling each other up; we’re not using crew people.

(Low whistle)

But they have a real feel for it because they can visualize the aerial experience. We have two extras here, and they’re going a very good job. But the dancers are particularly quick at it.

But you know they dance all day and then they have to pull rope, and one man I think is 180 pounds. That takes a bit of arm strength. (laughs)

I’ve worked with Foy, who were the originals [of stage flight]. We have one electronically-driven device for the aerial flying that goes the highest. The rest is done by hand. And actually, the technology hasn’t changed at all.

Originally, Garden was the first big aerial show in New York. There was nothing like it in 1984. Suddenly demons and angles were flying over the audience.

Now, of course, everybody does it. It’s like cell phone service.

It’s an all new company, mostly new collaborators. The costume designer is the same. It’s not a completely finished production yet. We don’t have a set—which I hope we won’t have, if the response is strong enough.

There was a debate about putting a set in the initial production. You had a set made…

…and I decided against it at 1 a.m. I remember, very well, that night.

We’re working very hard to get up an as-complete-as-we-can vision. And since I’ve been working in the theater a lot, in theater you get previews. In opera and dance you open to critics immediately.

So I hope this goes well. I hope we have a future. I hope we get a chance, after I see it a few times, for me to refine and expand all the things that happen in the preview period.

How long have you been down here?

Since May 16. Charles Reinhart and the festival have given us this wonderful opportunity to work at Reynolds [Theater] for the entire time. We had harness fittings on the evening of the 16th and we were flying by the morning of the 17th.

Yesterday I went light on the flying. It’s really hard and tiring. But we do many new flights in it.

You got my attention when you called this a re-envisioning. If this is a substantially changed work—what else is different?

I’ve choreographed for another 23 years. My physical vocabulary has expanded, and what I respond to, what I like; the variation of rhythm and silence and image I’ve lived with for 23 more years.

I couldn’t go back and do exactly what I’ve done. We are products of the time we live in, and our aesthetic changes, our responses to things change. My own taste has changed.

I think it’s a more fleshed out version, physically. There’s just more to it. I think it’s got a richer vocabulary.

The structure remains the same, the sequence of events remains the same. Much of the music is similar but it’s been reorchestrated—oddly enough, thinned down, and made less lush.

I wouldn’t have called the sound score from the 1984 video“lush.” It was pretty spare to start with…

The other day, we took out a melody after Adam and Eve leave paradise. The music suddenly gets very happy. I said to [composer] Dick Peaslee, “You know it sounds a little too upbeat for having just left paradise.”

I remember that moment in the original—it left kind of a question mark with me as well.

Hell is very much expanded. I’m making it now. I hope to get it finished (giggles).Even the sequence of the music is different, and some of the instrumentation is different.

We have an amazing musician named Wayne Henkin. He’s a wonderful musician who’s brought an assortment of bagpipes, krumhorns, and early instruments. We had a different assortment of early instruments in the original. And he’s a great jew’s harp player! Jew’s harp is something I’ve loved since seeing The Virgin Spring of Ingmar Bergman. He’s, like, virtuosic. He also plays bagpipes that are like 5 to 6 feet, with wooden pipes extended.

So it’s a darker piece in some ways. And I think, narratively, it’s probably going to be, in a funny way—I don’t know, perhaps clearer.

Although we are interpreting a painting, which makes time and sequence a free-for-all.

This is a beginning. It’s very early on, and in fact we’re far from finished at this point. But I am finding going back to something and rethinking it is a very exciting and engaging experience right now.

It’s hard. Sometimes I’ll pull something apart I don’t like, and I don’t know quite how to get inside and find the thread to release it.

There’s stuff I’ve liked that I’ve kept. For instance, in the beginning the dogs are much expanded; people on all fours.

Balthus always repainted his canvases. He never finished them. If they were at home, he kept working them. I feel a little bit like him in the Garden.

I redid a show called Vienna:Lusthaus, several years ago. It’s hard to be satisfied with what you’ve done.

Can you imagine going back to an article from 24 years ago?

I was just going to say I’m very much in sympathy with that. You go back and look something you wrote even that morning, and the desire to edit…

…change a word or put a thought at the end…

…or, even more damning, saying “Wait a minute. Now I get it.”

Sometimes it’s horrifying (laughs).

Adam and Eve is new, nearly all new choreography. The tree-man doesn’t stay on stage. There are things that I’ve just sort of said, “Seen that, go away now...”

I can easily imagine this would be quite frightening— just the notion of “Does the piece still work?” You’ve mentioned tastes change in a culture, relationships with art change over a while, where we are aesthetically…

And it’s a very different time than it was then. Although it’s the Republicans…

How has that influenced you—care to go on record on that one?

(Laughs) There is a moment in which I think some of the implications of the piece will have more resonance with the times we’re living in, oddly. The very fact that religion is a big subject now and atheism—I mean, there are a lot of threads in our day-to-day reading and news. Church and evolution and all that stuff … I’m not an intellect by any means, and I’m not commenting on it, but I think the references are just as pertinent now. I think I’m more aware of them.

The first place I go when you say that is…the insistence in entirely too many religions on the planet, on punishment and torture. It’s playing out on the world stage: The avenging angel of Christianity, the zero tolerance of certain practitioners of Islam. Fundamentalism in general.

The piece is not really about that. But these are things that, as I’m working—I guess I’m more in tune with what’s going on around me. In the ‘80s I couldn’t have been less interested. Now I’m a news junkie.

But I’m not commenting on the time. It just seems we’re really involved in religious wars, basically—or the world is.

There’s a big section of Hell. There’s a lot of torture. Is there such a thing as redemption, and how do you get there? (Laughs.)

It’s not a piece about policy, God knows. It really is Bosch. In the artist’s statement I had for the grant application, I said “Some things don’t change.”

I would say that all of the subjects in Bosch’s masterpiece are universal and probably eternal—which is a big, broad palette to work on, God knows. It’s a subject one could make a lifetime on: Working on paradise, animals, sensuality, corruption; the idea of hell, torture and damnation. I mean, they don’t ever go out of fashion.

As humans, we tend to have such a vivid—and negative—imagination. One of the things that strikes me about the initial work: Eden is so brief. The darkness that follows is much longer. It seems the characters have a very limited capacity for positive imagination, and a much bigger capacity for the negative: the capacity to dream up torture, inventing technologies for inflicting pain.. The notion of Hell itself is kind of an exercise, or object lesson in this…

First of all, happiness on stage is really a bland subject, unless you’re doing really wacko comedy.

Heaven has no mailboxes.

(Laughs) Exactly. You know, I’m a very kind of easy going character who loves animals, and I like beauty and order and all that. But I do have a kind of dark imagination, I’ll say that. I just set A Midsummer Nights Dream by the way, which was fairly dark. I based it on Goya’s Capriccios, at the American Repertory Theater in Boston.

Darkness is much more interesting for performers, theatrically, than being kind of pretty. It’s a wonderful thing, if you’re doing theater work. There’s a kind of gleeful release in working on it, oddly enough. It is not dark and depressing to work on dark things.

It’s like, “Oh, we can finally bring this out on the table and get it out in the open, rather than shooing it aside or shoving it away...

There’s this kind of glee. One dancer yesterday is doing [a section with the cellest], which was originally my part. I told her you have to get in touch with your inner anger to really do this, your inner demon.

My work used to be somewhat autobiographical. It isn’t anymore. At the time I made that piece I was in a very difficult personal situation with someone and I think, you know, it kind of gave vent to my furies.

It’s where I was then. Now I’m in a very different time of my life. It’s interesting to go back and in a funny way not have that kind of personal—I’m not living through that anymore—so it’s kind of interesting to go back and retouch what those emotions were about.

And since movement and images are abstract, but at times they can touch a kind of archetypal imagery—


I think it’s interesting to go back with a fork and poke around with that stuff now.

I have no idea as to the success, or what will happen with the piece. But I feel in many ways that where we’re going with it is clearer and more detailed. And that I think is a result of living longer, and having made many pieces since then.

I’ll question something now—and say “Why are we doing something, is it relevant, what comes before, what comes after” rather than just falling in love with an image and putting it out there.

I guess that when you back to something you know it already, so you can go to another level, whereas when you it the first time you’re flying by the seat of your pants. It’s …marinated longer. (Laughs.)

What role did [ADF Director] Charles Reinhart have in the start of your solo career?

I was here in 1978 with Pilobolus at the gala. Mockingly, I picked up unitard I’d just performed in. I had a book of matches, (laughs) and I kind of lit a match, and said “That’s what I want to with costume.”

He said, “Why don’t you do an evening of own work a year from now instead?” He was instrumental in giving me my first opportunity outside of Pilobolus to make my own work. While I enjoyed seven fruitful years with them, I was starting to feel I had to get my own voice out without talking through it with “the board.” (Laughs)


…and Charles gave me the opportunity to do that.

I’m trying to do a jazz version, if it ever happens, of Porgy and Bess with a wonderful composer in New York who has rearranged the score. We don’t have permission yet. But a producer wanted to do a “light touring version of Porgy and Bess.” So sometimes things come out of—what’s that famous quote about necessity?

Necessity is a mother.

(Laughs) That’s it.

Not quite. Actually, the mother of invention is the original quote..

Sometimes things come out of practical decisions. Like having the dancers fly each other.

Which really got my attention when you said it. I mean, that’s a counterweight system, you have to have people who have enough physical robustness…

And also you can imagine the person in the air is completely dependent on the one on the floor.

And the physics involved: the velocity that person achieves, the height…

…and how much impulse comes out of the dancers versus comes out of the hands on the ropes. So their life in a certain way is dependent on the ones who are the puppeteers. We’ve always done it with crew members.

But the dancers have a real feel for it. They can visualize the movement. They picked it so quickly…

And that’s why you went that way? Because the dancers would have more of a feel than the stagehands?

And also it was cheaper. It less encumbered the production for touring. I did it in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I had the actors do it, and it was a wonderful look, to see people in costumes over there, pulling rope. So we’ve opened the whole stage up.

Clearly the first version of Garden had a fairly profound influence on the intersection between dance and theater. It had its debut. People are asking themselves, “Is this theater walks like a dance; is it dance that walks like a theater. What is this in our midst?”

It’s the bane of my existence.

Isn’t it?

I want to do straight plays, and they say “But she’s a choreographer.” And my dance company says, “She doesn’t do dancing, she does theater.” Being that unidentified flying object is a pain in the ass.

But the glory of being pioneer means unfortunately the dues of being the one who gets there first and has to bring back the map of what the terrain is like. Obviously your work has made a lot of work possible for other people since then. I’m interested in your views on where the intersection of dance and theater was when you were creating Garden and where you feel it is now.

Obviously, there are a lot of great people in Europe; Pina Bausch, Robert Wilson. My main inspirations have mostly been great filmmakers—not choreographers, and not theater directors. My influence is watching great cinematic moments. Often, in American films, they want to go to the script first, but with European directors you’ll remember the images, the mood, the strong atmosphere of a film more than the line by line reading.

Very much so.

My great loves were Bergman, Fellini, Visconti. I’m really a Eurochick. (Laughs.) Peter Brook was and is a great director.

Anthony Tudor was my teacher—a great choreographer—and he had a great influence on me. Every gesture came from a psychological impulse. He was dealing with classical ballet technique, but even the way he put movement together always told a story, and always told something about the person or character performing it.

But the business about dance and theater: I think the problem often comes in criticism. It would be nice if people who wrote about the field actually had an interest in covering all the arts, rather than being specialists. Sometimes you’ll get adverse comments, because someone will come and it won’t be their area.

I know what you’re saying.

When I do a Mozart opera, say, and it’s very visual, mostly they’ll talk about music. They’ll say, “It’s not in the proper setting.” (Laughs.) I’ve had that happen, and I’ve felt, “If only so-and-so had seen it, we would have done better.”

There can be several critical dynamics. One of them is classicism: in praise of classics and resistant to experimentation thereon.

Yes, absolutely.

Then there’s this sort of “genre guardianship.” Think Cerberus, the three-headed dog at the gates of opera, theater or dance…

I do feel the difference. But if the wall came down in Berlin, why can’t it come down in the theater? (Laughs)

But I’m not aware of having been influenced by any particular director to make what I make. It’s come out of my background with Anna Sokolow, Anthony Tudor and Pilobolus. And I met some actors early on that I thought were really exciting and fun to be around. And I started kind of leaning toward text—this the first time I haven’t used text since Garden, by the way.

My appetite changed. I always like to take a challenge, which is why Gardens has changed a lot. If I’ve done it, I’ve done it. I’ve got to move on.

Really, this is a new version. Even down to lighting, we’re starting all over again. I think, “You know, I don’t want to do it anymore, when I’m no longer scaring the…(laughs) scaring myself. If you know what I mean.

Who’s doing costumes?

Jane Greenwood. But a friend named Jeffrey Worthing has just made a wonderful new unitard.

I mean, look, I would have done it naked, but then people stop watching what they’re watching. And harness and nudity wouldn’t work. We’re trying something new that’s much more sheer. But Jane has not redesigned—the Burgher costumes are 24 years old...

and falling apart?

Not really. They were so well made. And the cast has gone from 7 to ten dancers and three musicians. And we could still use one or two more, honest to God. But this is where we are on this leg of the trip.

Who’s interested in the presenting the work?

There’s real interest in New York. American Rep Theater has shown some interest. The Kennedy Center has shown some interest. Hopefully the Guthrie has shown some interest, and theaters abroad.

But until people see it, nothing’s in writing. It’s like taking finals.

I love the people, I love the new company very much; they’ve been inventive and generous. We’ve have a pretty good time—and a lot of bruised arms.

One last thing. For people who have seen the original, and you want to say “This is going to be different from the original,” what else would you say?

Just say “more.” (Laughs) I think it’s got more complexity, more sensuality. And higher emotion. And lower emotion. Or both, actually. (Laughs) I think it’s going to be a richer tapestry than original.

I really hadn’t looked at it for years. It was like an old boyfriend. But sometimes you go back and it’s better than ever. (Chuckles)

I mean, I’m in the middle of it, so I can’t really judge it now. I do think it’s been fascinating to go back and add new vocabulary. The use of space is more interesting with ten people.

It’s more beautiful. It looks like a National Geographic film now to me. (Laughs.) And I have a bagpipe player on stage rather than a tree-man at the beginning. This amazing, ancient instrument with the wooden sticks coming out, it looks like a big sea creature.

It was first big piece I’d done after I left Pilobolus. And I think we were kind of lucky we came across it—happened to find the subject and make piece.

I like it better, now. But I do live with it day to day these days. And I really won’t know anything until the third or fourth performance. I won’t even know how I feel about the work.

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