Martha Clarke’s hypnotic visual meditation on the aesthetics of decadence, updated and intensified from her original treatment in 1986, should ideally be experienced in some elegant, ill-fated locale like the grand saloon of the Lusitania. Failing that, this remarkable dance-theater piece still plays like a prescient dream of doom, in a stunning production that suggests the many seductive opportunities for damnation at the dawn of a new century.
Set among the upper classes of Viennese society at the turn of the last century, the multiple scenes of Clarke’s inventive piece depict the libidinous antics of people who seem vaguely aware that they may be no more than dramatis personae in their own dreams. There is certainly a tangible quality, heightened by Robert Israel’s lushly detailed costumes, about the pompous fathers, virginal daughters, preening soldiers and pontificating intellectuals who assemble themselves in these vignettes to dance, play cards, attend opera, ride horses and offer up their shapely bodies to one another. But, as viewed behind a scrim, on a white set framed right and left by giant asymmetrical door frames that open onto pitch-black nothingness, these self-contained characters might simply be floating in and out of our consciousness — or their own.
There is ample inspiration for this unsettling, if pleasurable, sense of disorientation in the source material from which Charles L. Mee draws his provocative fragments of text. Unidentified voices of dominant figures of the era, from members of the Hapsburg Imperial family to Freud and Krafft-Ebing, are heard ruminating on anything from the beauty of the Danube River in the rain to the circular logistical reasoning for denying citizenship to Jews. There’s no telling, though, where these monologues and bits of dialogue, conceptualized as animated paintings, will lead when filtered through Clarke’s lusty sensibility and set to Richard Peaslee’s haunting chamber compositions for horn, harp, strings and woodwinds.
A father’s innocuous pleasure in allowing his daughter to get splashed from the spray of a fountain (“I put out my hand to deflect the water.…”) becomes charged with incestuous eroticism. A woman’s amused account of an aunt’s idiosyncratic beauty rituals (“In strawberry season, she covered her face with crushed fruit”) becomes a sensuous boudoir ballet of lovely girls in white chemises and petticoats, intimately exploring the boundaries of their sexuality. Even in scenes devoid of verbal language — a man who reaches out to groom his horse finds himself stroking, and then mounting and riding a woman’s naked body — the dancers’ body language translates exotic images into erotic movement. There is far more nudity here than in the original version, and it is, quite frankly, luscious to behold, especially bathed in the luminous glow of Paul Gallo’s lighting.
Not that Clarke is out to titillate her audience with cheap thrills.
There are socio-political undertones, as well, to her surreal explorations of (as a program note would have it) “the unconscious world from which our tormented, waking world springs eternally.” In highly cultured, emotionally repressive societies, carnal longings are not the only forbidden fruits relegated to the idiomatic realms of dreams, art and literature. Whether unlocking a Freudian dream, a painting by Gustav Klimt or the diary entry of a Hapsburg princess, Clarke finds images of bestiality as well as beauty a blueprint for any fin de siecle society, including our own.