PRINT September 1988


I like to laugh a lot, even when I’m in a terrible mood. For me, it’s all so extreme. You even see it by the subjects I choose for my theater pieces: on the one hand,Vienna at the turn of the century, frivolous, gay, elegant, enervated by the myth of beauty and form; on the other hand, . . . the Kafka of depression and fatalism, but also of decidedly lyrical passages.

THIS IS MARTHA CLARKE speaking about herself and her work. After choreographing for and dancing with Pilobolus from 1972 until 1978, and then cofounding, in 1978, the Crowsnest company, a small ensemble dedicated to exploring the relationship among dance, theater, and music, Clarke found her way to theater, through successive explorations, by consistently taking a literary or pictorial text as her point of departure. Around and through this text, she has been constructing her signature stagework, stunning us with her powers of translating one language into another. Within the contemporary New York scene, Martha Clarke has become a favorite of the critics, and stands now at the threshold between off- and off-off-Broadway and the mainstream commercial theater, testing herself on a more and more challenging financial and spatial scale than the independent circuit can offer. Like Robert Wilson, with his exquisite esthetics, formal research, and ambitious vision, Clarke is garnering a whole new audience and enthusiasm for the spectacles of color, light, and movement we call, for lack of a better term, performance art.

Yet Clarke’s productions, from Garden of Earthly Delights, 1984, to Vienna: Lusthaus, 1986, to The Hunger Artist, 1987, are not so much spectacles. Marked by a clear taste for precise composition, esthetic charm, and sense of decoration, they might best be defined in short as perfectly made art objects; elegant collages that begin with a text and then, according to the artist, grow and change through the process of incorporating “found objects, raw materials, and some people. It’s like going into the attic blindfolded. The point of departure never coincides with where one ends up.” These productions make their point precisely through this style, which Clarke herself has defined as “fractured clarity.” And given their creator’s years of work as a choreographer in modern dance, uniting movement, gesture, music, drama, and design through progressive passages, Clarke’s results are always undeniably elegant, beautiful, pure pleasure for the spectators’ eyes. For the theater of Clarke, and this is both its fragility and its power, is intended to be looked at, to be visually consumed as one consumes paintings exhibited in a gallery: even if drenched in complements like music and extremely dense verbal texts, these works remain essentially descriptive and illustrative. While addressing certain ambitious themes and complex pivots of modern culture (the hell/paradise opposition in her reinterpretation of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights; the interdisciplinary psychoanalytic adventure as exemplified in the works of Gustav Klimt and Arthur Schnitzler in her Vienna: Lusthaus; the Kafkian problematics of emotional deprivation in her Hunger Artist), Clarke’s esthetic insistently avoids any conventional probing of contents, or traditional delineations of characters and situations. Instead, content serves as container, sign, outline; characters/situations serve as the vehicle for intuitive research into emotional and imagistic correspondences.

Defined by many critics as the best synthesizer of American theater working today, Clarke freely admits “I am an out-and-out thief of styles and phrases. I take possession of something and transform it in such a way that no one can guess the source. And my sources range from the cinema of Bergman, of Fellini and Visconti, to the most varied literary texts, to the choreography of Antony Tudor. However, my true theatrical reference, at least my most conscious one, remains Peter Brook, the only one who has managed to unify emotion and vision.”

With her most recent effort, Miracolo d’Amore (Miracle of love), performed in May at the Spoleto Festival U.S.A. in Charleston, South Carolina, and in June at the First New York International Festival of the Arts, Clarke presents us with a paradox or, perhaps better, an oxymoron. With both ambition and maturity, Clarke borrows here from all the performing arts, and from all available expressive codes, to attempt a hyperconstruction, a chiseled and polished convergence point of complex and disparate languages. At the same time, however, she assumes, a priori, a state of fragmentation and seems to revel in a brash passion for nonhierarchical bricolage. Thus Miracolo d’Amore—an “architext” par excellence, to use the definition of the French semiologist Gerard Genette—seeks to embody and employ the two radically different trajectories of potential for much of American theater in the ’80s. It is both a theatrical hyperstructure and the negation or deconstruction of that very notion. It is a theatrical and narrative machine with its gears exposed. Its ever fluctuating, sporadic, restless elements seem virtually interchangeable, components put together and taken apart in a series of configurations theoretically infinite, and yet in a process marked by a rigorous, unalterable economy.

Much of Miracolo takes its inspiration from various texts that function as both narrative and as form, alternatively as pretexts and subtexts. Let’s look at the obvious and more recognizable ones.

Italo Calvino’s Italian Folktales, 1956: a collection of childhood fables re-presented by the Italian writer through a process of recovery, selection, and organization of traditional Italian folkloric materials; a text charged with oneiric, archetypal, and magical suggestions, profoundly Mediterranean and yet dense with the classical topoi that characterize classical fables the world over—topoi that, in other cultures, came to have somber and disturbing implications, but that in the pages of Calvino maintain a sunniness and a happily pagan, pre-Catholic, uncontaminated levity. Above all in these tales, there is a great sense of humor, the materialistic mark in a tradition that has never ceased seeing behind the witch the body of a woman—powerful, bisexual, rebellious, yet always physical; and behind the enchantments, not mysterious occult powers, but the positive earthly accumulation of common and commonly practiced forces and knowledge.

The paintings of Tiepolo: simultaneously dense, swarming narratives and frozen tableaux of everyday life; conscious revisitations, in the rarefied and tonal light of Venetian seascapes, of the most minute and quotidian situations in which the characters of the Commedia dell’Arte, and in particular those of the twisted, intriguing Pulcinellas of the great southern famine, become protagonists in a grotesque and yet graceful dance, in a theater of seduction. Here, the atavistic rags of misery become the colorful costumes and disguises of carefree playfulness.

The Apollonian 16th-century architecture of Palladio: a play of equilibriums and proportions capable of denying or granting volumes independent of functional principle, without ever dead-ending into the mere decorativism of the gratuitous or the accessory; the serene architecture of the villas of the Veneto—theatrical stage sets by definition—ideal containers for action tied to the universe of representation, rather and more than to the referential realm of life and reality.

The madrigals of Monteverdi combined with the love lyrics of Petrarch, of Ridolfo Ariotti, of Guarini, of Torquato Tasso: an extremely cultivated procession of references and quotations that hypostatize the love relationship, moving from the invitations of dolce stil nuovo poetics to the disavowals of the late Renaissance, to the satiated exhaustions of the pre-Baroque.

The children’s illustrations of the French artist Grandville: a perversely graceful iconographic apparatus emerging in the century of the Enlightenment and of great revolutionary developments. Here, the feminine, homologized to nature—twisted, decorated, abstracted—gives life to a garden of meanings with each character assigned the form and the colors of a flower, and yet with the woman-flower metaphor becoming something more than a game of disguise. Here, costume coincides with essence in a typology explicitly sexual—tied to earth, to water, to air, to fire.

Working in this eclectic textual hinterland, re-proposing the multiple-meaning methodology of her earlier works, Clarke achieves her miracle, as with all her works, through close collaboration with a group of artists capable of interpreting and translating her vision into and through their own media: Robert Israel’s set design, Richard Peaslee’s music, Paul Gallo’s lighting; and among the actor/dancer protagonists, Felix Blaska, John Kelly, and Rob Besserer stand out for their highly idiosyncratic vocabularies that remain, nonetheless, true to the nature of the work.

From a purely formal point of view, Miracolo d’Amore stands closest to an opera or an oratorio in which singing and music replace dialogue. But the voices here, whether uttering ambiguous sounds, joining in sweet melodies, or shattering into isolated shrieks, disintegrate the functional principle of communication. The reason there is no speaking in Miracolo is because listening is not called for. Communication, if it ever occurs, is a passage through other, more immediate, but certainly more equivocal languages: glances; movements in space of approach and retreat; gestures. In any case, the dominant principle remains that of distortion or synesthesia.

The performance begins, programmatically, in the realm of ambiguity. The stage, a metaphysical and disquieting triangle of slanting, apparently two-dimensional, ocher-colored walls (architectural ruins or materials waiting to be assembled?) upon which the lights carve a menacing, haunting path, is crossed by a strange character. Wrapped in loose sackcloth that hides the face, that warps and blurs the anatomy, the character is sexually unidentifiable. And he or she—inching, hunched, across the stage, scraping its surface with a primitive twig broom—is disguised above all by his or her voice. That voice is scraping too, artificial sounding, without any connotation of gender. The regime of the text is thus inaugurated: for out of this disfigured and powerful body, through spurious cloning or perverse germination, will break Miracolo’s inventory of the unconscious at the end of the world. The androgyne as a self-sufficient, ideal body of convergence and fullness has not appeared on stage, but instead as a macabre, postsexualized body that abolishes the principle of unity and imposes the overturning of values and signs. Thus, in the chronology of the theatrical action, the initial sequence is followed by the first of a series of round dances/garlands à la Matisse. The nude, diaphanous, lunar bodies of four female protagonists join together in rarefied, extremely chaste movements. These could be bodies of seduction or enigmatic projections of desire. But instead, grouped and delicately revolving, then solemnly, one by one, disappearing into the translucent shadow of a set that the play of the lights has populated with tunnels, trenches, galleries, and rooms, they are only evanescent and volatile ghosts. Like the eerie configurations of nude or half-nude women we find in the works of Paul Delvaux, these bodies operate independently of men; they are utterly silent, impassive. Yet Clarke’s women are bodies doubly mute and lifeless: first, because they do not represent the desire of others; second, because they do not, or cannot, recognize in themselves the self-sufficiency of narcissism. Throughout, the women in Miracolo are exhibited yet invisible bodies. Even if the register Clarke favors is explicitly scopic, and even if the only true choreographic cohesion of the entire work is supplied by a careful geometry of gazes (the set itself is an incredible voyeuristic machine in which the characters can transform any viewpoint into a site of secret observation, a place from which to spy), the movements, actions, and episodes of Miracolo again and again confirm that in order to see, it is not enough to look, and that in order to be seen, it is not enough to be looked at, spied upon, observed; that perhaps, among the senses, sight is the most uncertain.

In rapid flashes, Miracolo unwinds more through repetition than through linearity; devoid of traditional dramatic development, it proceeds through accumulations, through stratifications. Every episode enacted between these slow, solemn round dances seems to relate a single, self-contained situation, told from the beginning, a primal scene that draws on no emotional knowledge from the past, and provides no emotional preparation for the future. And yet it is always the dynamic between the beholder and that which is impossible to behold. Again and again, the men of Miracolo seek to make contact—and their efforts range from the ineptly tender to the inane to the bestial—only to withdraw in horror and fear, turning back toward the protected/protecting port of another male body. Woman’s alluring beauty in Miracolo—for her admirers/predators—is always, ultimately, the unspeakable beauty of vanitas; every unfolding instant of her beauty is the most exquisite, torturous reminder that beauty is fleeting, and that every blossoming only brings us closer to decay, death. Whether naked, costumed, disguised, or altered by humpbacks, masks, and grotesque and yet somehow charming hats like Pulcinella figures sui generis, the men of Miracolo draw toward one another in daring, erotic movements, while the women are left to watch and to dance, sadly; even, at times, to embrace skeletons as their benumbed partners.

Thus, with no recognizable cathartic moment, the work remains steadfastly in balance between comedy and tragedy, between irony and grief. So that when, for example, the classical masks of sorrow and happiness are drawn alternatively, in a diachronous passage, across the faces of two female protagonists with serene equanimity, we are being reminded that it is not the time for univocal modalities and gestures, that the ultimate horror can provoke laughter and that the ultimate beauty can provoke tears of regret and bewilderment. And when we hear that lugubrious burst of hysterical and impotent laughter, always markedly female, repeatedly throughout the performance, it punctuates not only the action but also the strangled, inhuman shrieks always given off by the men. And their garbled, wounded, bestial sounds, like the howling and cries of birds circling over the devastation of the world, speak to us of their incapacity—but also their desire—to articulate a new discourse of life and pleasure.

In the compressed and cerebral elegance of Miracolo’s choreography without dance movements, theatrical text without words and without action, shadows prevail over light, black-and-white over color, and tension is crystallized into ice-cold containers of emotions that would otherwise be intolerable, excessive. In this respect, Clarke is quite far from the expressionistic and visceral gloom of Pina Bausch, with whom she has often been compared. Certainly, they move within the same semantic field and the same narrative area. Yet Clarke takes refuge behind the secure screen of irony, of an atemporal and abstract symbology, and an estheticizing passion for form in and of itself. Cruelty and violence mark many of the scenes in Miracolo: a man slowly lifts the diaphanous skirt of a bare-breasted woman lying on the floor, we watch his head disappear between her legs then reemerge to let out a long, awful roar; in another scene we watch a male performer, through a series of virtuoso transformations of his body, change from a youthful Christ on the cross to a gawky bird pecking for food to an old, clubfooted peasant hobbling off the stage; in what comes closest to a climactic episode in the performance, the male and female casts engage in a pas de deux shifting from lovemaking to rape and assault. Yet Clarke revives and transforms every outrage into a beautiful object, as if she might thereby transcend the dimension of reality. Relying on the enchanting use of characters and correspondences from the repertoire of fables (the blind prophet, metamorphoses, the initiatory path of trials and stations, the double woman, the magic window, the night watch, talisman objects), Clarke seems to want to offer us the possibility of both psychoanalytic interpretations and deconstructionist interpretations of the kind pioneered by the Russian formalists. But one cannot forget, even for an instant, that Miracolo, though seemingly frozen in a timeless present, speaks in and to this present: the wounded, terminal New York of the late ’80s; this island floating like Fellini’s “ship,” whose passengers are not only phantasms of the past, but also its rowdy terrifying survivors.

Maria Nadotti is a writer who lives in New York and Rome.

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.