Martha Clarke’s best known dance-theater works have used predominantly visual means to conjure the imagery of great painters: the fantastical world of Hieronymus Bosch in “The Garden of Earthly De-lights”; the cultivated decadence of Gustav Klimt and the violent sensuality of Egon Schiele in “Vienna: Lusthaus.” Her muddled new piece, “Belle Epoque,” lushly evokes the prostitutes, barflies and dancing girls that populate the poster art of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, but fails in its broader aim to depict the artist’s absinthe-addled psyche, due largely to an overwrought text by Charles L. Mee.
Clarke is at her best with little or no spoken text. She previously collaborated with playwright Mee to consid-erable effect on “Vienna: Lusthaus,” a 1986 piece imposingly staged in a revised version in 2002 at New York Theater Workshop. Clarke’s harshly beautiful, often animalistic movements blended with Mee’s brief monologues and elliptical dialogue fragments to create a stark, yet pungent, erotic dream.
While aiming to follow their reflection on fin de siecle Vienna by crafting a similarly dark, hallucino-genic fever dream out of belle epoque Paris, the collaborative team is a less seamless unit here and the results far less striking. Disjointed as it is, the preponderance of text overburdens the visuals, making “Belle Epoque” seem over-conceived as dance and under-conceived as theater.
Mark Povinelli (who stepped into the role after Peter Dinklage pulled out during workshops) plays Toulouse-Lautrec, the physically frail son of an aristocratic family who has dwarfism.
Concentrating on the end of the artist’s life, when he was addicted to “the green fairy,” absinthe, and dying of syphilis, Clarke and Mee assemble a delirium-tinged collage that reflects back to trace Toulouse-Lautrec’s close-ness with his hyper-protective mother (Honora Fergusson), his fascination with female skin (“like living silk”) and undergarments, his consuming sexual desire, his one real love affair and his predilection for brothels, cafes and dance halls like the Moulin Rouge.
“I’m digging my grave with my cock,” says the subject in one of the more blunt lines of Mee’s text, which feels too literal here for Clarke’s impressionistic style. The standard depiction of Toulouse-Lautrec is spelled out: the physical inadequacy pitted against attraction to the ripe, sensual forms of cabaret stars and demimondaines; the addictive personality; the self-demeaning tendency toward drunken clowning; the yearning, unfulfilled heart. But there’s no depth to the wordy piece’s perceptions, no real insight into its subject’s soul.
The images created by Clarke on designer Robert Israel’s parquet stage, backed by large, murky cafe mirrors, are often arresting. The dance maverick’s marriage of rowdy cancan bursts with lazy galloping movements gives the piece a vigorous physicality.
The elastic-torsoed, angular Robert Besserer brings to life an iconic Toulouse-Lautrec figure, towering over the artist and twisting across the stage in hypnotic slow motion. As the exotic Cuban Chocolat, Tome Cousin cuts a dynamic figure as he struts and stomps. In one gorgeous interlude, Besserer and Robert Wersinger ride bistro chairs like horses to Saint-Saens’ “L’Aquarium” from “Carnival of the Animals.”
Played onstage on piano, French horn, tuba, bandoneon and violin, the eclectic music includes Debussy, Bizet, Satie and Faure. Among the songs is a ribald comic listing of vaginal euphemisms performed by Ruth Maleczech as carrot-haired, blowzy Moulin Rouge entertainer La Goulue while three effeminate gay cafe patrons amusingly shudder in revulsion.
The vocal high points come from Joyce Castle as chanteuse Yvette, capturing both the playful humor of her music hall numbers and the more mournful emotions of “In Saint-Lazare,” about the women’s detention center, and “I Want Yer Ma Honey,” hauntingly sung as pallbearers hold aloft Toulouse-Lautrec’s coffin.
Jane Greenwood’s costumes faithfully reproduce the look of classic Toulouse-Lautrec figures, while Christo-pher Akerlind’s evocative, shadowy lighting casts an effective green pallor over the stage.
However, the sunken thrust stage of the Mitzi Newhouse feels fundamentally wrong for the piece. Watching a fleshy hooker take a topless sponge bath inches away from bewildered-looking Lincoln Center subscribers some-how compromises the moment. Either a more pronounced division from the aud or a more environmental stage might have allowed for greater immersion in Clarke’s world, which often seems overpopulated in the intimate space.