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By Wendy Perron
Visionary dance-theater choreographer Martha Clarke has not slowed down. Her piece Angel Reapers, based on the Shakers, comes to New York’s Joyce Theater Nov. 29 to Dec. 11 after touring New England. American Ballet Theatre just revived her trio, The Garden of Villandry, and she’s creating a rock ballet for La Scala in Italy. Wendy Perron chatted with Clarke in her Manhattan apartment about Angel Reapers, which had been shown as a work-in-progress at American Dance Festival last year. It was both a sad and happy time for Clarke. Her horse, whom she was very attached to for 23 years, had to be put down, leaving her feeling bereft. And yet she was just restarting rehearsals for Angel Reapers, which made her feel excited and full of enthusiasm.
What attracted you to the Shakers? Alfred Uhry, who wrote Driving Miss Daisy, approached me six years ago [with the idea] and he said, “You’re just crazy enough to do it.” I love their furniture—the austerity, the simplicity, the craftsmanship. There’s a very rich collection of over 2,000 Shaker spirituals. Alfred wrote a very linear play at the time. Now, the text, the writing is so beautiful. Visceral. The script, the performing is very raw stuff.
Who’s in your cast? I have a company of 11, an extraordinary cast of ex-Graham, ex-Tharp…ex-Clarke. We have two actors. They all contributed to their own back story. They’re fabulous. I had a marvelous teacher named Richard Armstrong come in to teach them how to use their voices. They sing the entire score a capella. It’s the first time they’ve sung and spoken, for all of them.
When you researched the Shakers, what images stood out? Hissing the devil out of the room. Sex was forbidden, and all the repression became orgiastic movement and song. The community flourished through conversion. They took in orphans, women who had children out of wedlock, and runaway slaves. They took in people that didn’t fit in.
So you have some of these people among your characters? We have a married couple; we have a runaway slave; we have a man who’s attracted to other men; we have a woman who was in an abusive relationship.
What’s the hardest thing for performers? I think speaking, getting the confidence. Dancers are mutes, they’re like horses. To breathe properly, to speak using their body in a way that supports their voice, not their extension, was a big challenge. And singing. They sing at least an hour at every rehearsal.
How did you find that shaking kind of physicality? The rhythm was the driving thing. I call it Stomp for Shakers. My work has often been slowish and imagistic and dreamlike, and I felt the challenge of the piece was rhythm. The feet are used like percussion instruments. There is lots of counterpoint, and sometimes they’re stamping while they’re singing something in completely different rhythm. It’s boot camp. It has to be precise; you can’t forget the next beat. And I’ve never counted everything. My assistant Gabby Malone happens to be a rhythm maniac. I’m very right-brained and she’s very left-brained. So in the rehearsal process we’ll talk about a rhythm and she will drill it, then I’ll begin saying, ‘The men will go this way, the women’—it comes together. The people who play roles have infused their own personality. That happens in all my work.
Do you consider yourself more of a choreographer or theater director? I’m really a mongrel. I’m somewhere in the middle. It’s not an easy place to be, but it’s who I am. I direct dancers and choreograph actors.
Where does the title Angel Reapers come from? It came from a Shaker song. We don’t sing the song, but I love the words. It’s about souls. Pure good souls are reaped for heaven, as Mother Ann Lee, an early leader of the Shakers, envisioned it. You make sacrifices in your life and live orderly. Every chair is made for an angel to sit on. You live every day as though it were your last and as though you’ll live for a thousand years.
Are there any animals in Angel Reapers? Me. [laughs]. No animals, not even the sound of animals.
Does it push the dancers’ stamina? It’s a hard piece to perform. It’s short—70-some minutes, but it’s very concentrated. They hardly ever leave the stage. The movement is very, very limited. Every movement, every gesture has a story within it. And they provide each other’s music. Sometimes they’re singing while they’re dancing, sometimes they sing while someone else is doing something that’s different, and sometimes they’re stamping rhythms while someone else is talking. The religion became codified later but when it started with Ann Lee, it was bedlam.
Is Angel Reapers like any of your previous works? For each project I try and open a new door. What are those calendars called at Christmas? I think of my career as an Advent calendar, that any time I get a chance to try something that I’ve never done before, that’s the only reason I’ll do it.
From top: Martha Clarke. Photo by Amy Kelkenberg; Whitney V. Hunter in Angel Reapers. Photo by Sara Davis, Courtesy CAMI.