The Birth Of Neurosis

The sexy "upside-down dance" ensures attractive suitors: 'Vienna: Lusthaus'
Courtesy of Northrop Auditorium

Martha Clarke is snowed in for the weekend. Speaking by phone from her home in Connecticut, she describes lying in bed with her two Pomeranians, listening to a pack of coyotes howling outside. "My friends ask me, 'Aren't you scared?' but I love it. Exhilarating with a hint of danger."

No stranger to risky ventures, choreographer/director Clarke began her career in the 1970s as a member of Pilobolus Dance Theater, a company that worked collaboratively to create a unique (and often startling) hybrid of dance, human sculpture, and theater. Since the 1980s, Clarke has created numerous large-scale works ranging from a detailed portrait of hell (The Garden of Earthly Delights , based on the Hieronymus Bosch painting) to a lyrical foray into the work of Anton Chekhov and the composer Aleksandr Scriabin that incorporated one of her Pomeranians.

Clarke's Vienna: Lusthaus (Revisited), co-sponsored by Northrop Auditorium and Walker Art Center, explores the lushly decadent substrata of pre-World War I Vienna through a synthesis of dance, music, text, and mime. "It's about the interior life of the educated middle class at the turn of the century, the birth of 20th-century neurosis," says Clarke. Like many of her works, this one straddles the vibrant intersection of politics and prurience. "Sex, love, death, history--that's my hang-up," admits Clarke. "It's my operatic nature at work."

Vienna: Lusthaus (Revisited) is certainly operatic in scope, incorporating 13 actors, dancers, and musicians and a set by Minnesota native Robert Israel that turns Northrop's stage into a stark white room with violently skewed walls. Clarke's inspiration for the original 1986 production came from a show of the artist Egon Schiele in Venice. Struck by Schiele's eroticized, isolated nude figures, Clarke later hooked up with writer Charles L. Mee, who listened to her ideas and declared, "I'm going to write this." Clarke, who wasn't sure she wanted a writer, nonetheless began playing with the chunks of text he sent her--a mix of excerpts from historical texts (Sigmund Freud's notebooks, an article discussing the shape of a Jewish foot) and his own observations on a volatile time and place where psychoanalysis and fascism overlapped.

Improvising with her dancers, Clarke invoked rigorous dream logic, "to make sense out of stuff not necessarily connected. It's like chipping away at marble," she says. "You whittle a bit away and see where the marble takes you." Clarke describes how ew progresses (or maybe regresses) from spring to winter, from frolicking innocence to premonitions of Hitler and anti-Semitism. Seductive images of, say, lovers tenderly undressing one another turn decidedly nasty as we see a man wielding a riding crop against a woman's bare backside, or a copulating couple connected back to front galloping like a horse. Richard Peaslee's score, which one critic described as "the music of fiddling while Rome burns," reinforces Clarke's uncanny union of the bestial and the sublime.

"I can't seem to pull myself away from the turn of the century," admits Clarke, who is currently working on a piece about Toulouse-Lautrec and the women who inspired him. "I wanted a feeling particular to historical Vienna, but also resonant--like a wedding cake with maggots."

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