New York

Martha Clarke

Lincoln Center

In the ’80s, Martha Clarke, who began her career as a choreographer and founder of the group Pilobolus, stepped from the dance scene into the art world. Though the highly visual quality of her work seemed to justify moving into an art/performance context, this shift turned out to be a mistake. By abandoning inventive choreography for high-gloss imagery, Clarke has nurtured one talent at the expense of another. Had she kept her dancers dancing rather than walking and posing against fantastic backdrops, works such as Vienna Lusthaus (Vienna whorehouse, 1986) or Miracolo d’Amore (The miracle of love, 1988) could have been evocative and inventive ballets instead of the extravagant, scenic shells that they were.

Clarke’s most recent evening-length production, An Uncertain Hour, 1995, presented as part of Lincoln Center’s “Serious Fun!” summer series, remained focused on image-making. Still enamored of the art/performance world, Clarke created a work in which four superb dancers dance barely at all and in which the overall effect is one of dreamy stylishness—the kind associated with television commercials for expensive perfumes or luxury cars. This is all the more surprising given that the basic ingredients for An Uncertain Hour are really quite wonderful: in addition to the dancers (Rob Besserer, Gary Chryst, Sabine Kupferberg, and Martine Van Hamel), each of whom has a mesmerizing stage presence, there are two elegant onstage singers and a piano accompanist. Initially captivating and suggestive of fin-de-siècle Germany, the moody lighting and the dark landscape soon serve only as pretty illustrations of the theme of lost love celebrated by the lieder the performers sing.

Clarke’s work has the peculiar quality of being at once brilliant and simplistic. Startling images—such as the scene in which Besserer is entwined with a lifelike stuffed swan that suggests Leda’s love affair and Freud’s famous analysis of it—flit across the stage and then disappear. Rather than becoming a point of departure for an extraordinary dance sequence or a pas de deux with one of the white-shifted women, and for developing the strangely erotic seam of man and long-necked bird, the man and the swan, who cross the stage at various points throughout the performance, end up looking rather silly. Without elaboration this initially arresting image eventually becomes meaningless.

How can an artist whose early works garnered such high praise for their visual splendor and charged scenes of erotic obsession have come to this? The answer lies in the fact that Clarke’s productions have focused more and more on the visual landscape of the stage and less and less on how her dances traverse it. Dance theater succeeds when choreographic design is a dramatic pulse of a work, when movement is the source of a choreographer’s overall vision. It is time that Clarke return to dance, to an artistic practice for which she has a special talent. Given a complex choreographic base, An Uncertain Hour could probably have been successfully realized.

RoseLee Goldberg