It’s been a whirlwind of a year—but it’s not at all clear that MARTHA CLARKE would have it any other way. In February she workshopped a new arrangement of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess for a Broadway producer. She also learned two bits of news: She’d won the Scripps/American Dance Festival award for Lifetime Achievement, with an honorarium of $50,000. Plus, she’d received a commission for a new work to premiere at this year’s ADF. The result, ANGEL REAPERS, is based on the history of an obscure New England sect: The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing—better known as the Shakers.

  • Footage from a rehearsal of Angel Reapers
After its premiere this week, Clarke will collaborate with neuroscientists at the University of Iowa’s medical school as an artist-in-residence, developing a new work about the chemistry of dreams. Further on in the fall, there’s a potential New York production of Macbeth.
In the midst of all of this, Clarke has had a supporting role in a major motion picture: Salvation Boulevard, the upcoming George Ratliff film starring Greg Kinnear, Marisa Tomei, Pierce Brosnan and Ed Harris. Her character? “An eccentric, elderly dancer/choreographer,” she crowed, dissolving into ironic laughter.

We spoke with her by phone on June 23, in New York—the morning after the first full run-through of her new work.

INDEPENDENT: How’s it going?

MARTHA CLARKE: Very hot in New York.

My sympathies; it’s already broiling down here. And you’re not in a place where you can enjoy a beverage, something cooler?

Well, this apartment has air conditioning, but the studios don’t.
And working with hot dancers, on a hot day, in the heat is, uh, a little hard.
I’m emailing somebody who wants to come to a run-through. I’ve just said, “Bring a fan.”

The concept of “bikram dance rehearsal” raises its less than lovely head. But if it’s okay where you are, shall we begin?

It’s fine.

We spoke when you were restaging The Garden of Earthly Delights two years ago. It’s interesting that we’re meeting, once again, in overtly spiritual territory. I’m curious: What drew you to the Shakers in the first place?

Actually, Alfred [playwright Alfred Uhry] came to me with the project. Many years ago, five years ago at least, we were at a Thanksgiving party. There were many people—over 100—there. We’d met at another holiday earlier that year, and we’d lived in the same area of Connecticut for three years, so he wasn’t a complete stranger. But we hadn’t hung out together, I’ll say that.
He tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if I’d like to do a piece about the Shakers. And I looked at him and my eyes crossed and I said, “Well, I don’t know!”

Just out of the blue?

Well, he knew my work, and I obviously knew his. [Among other works, Uhry has written the script and screenplay for Driving Miss Daisy, and the book for the controversial musical Parade, about the Leo Frank case. Major revivals of Parade have been produced within the past year in Los Angeles and Atlanta. Last month, the Manhattan Theater Club announced it will produce the world premiere of Uhry’s new play, Carl’s Sister, off-Broadway in 2011.]
He said, “I think you’d be quite good with this material.”
You know, more sturm und drang. I think he felt I liked intense subjects.

This is actually our second hit at it. We did an extended workshop in 2005 at Lincoln Center Theater; a straight play with a text on the life of the founder, Mother Ann Lee. We had an amazing cast of actors, including Frances McDormand and Michael Stuhlbarg, who had the lead in A Serious Man, plus three of the eleven present dancers. We developed it as a play with music and movement, using an extraordinary collection of very early 18th-century Shaker music.
We showed it to the artistic director at Lincoln Center Theater.
He did not feel it was for his audience.
Who does Biography—A&E? (laughs)
In our first run, I think Alfred and I tried to stick too much to historical facts—like a biopic. We got it right biographically, but we got it all wrong in terms of the staging. It became too historically oriented. And repression isn’t very sexy in some ways; it probably was a little too wild and nutsy.

Then last summer, the director of Berkshire Theater Festival said, “We can offer you studios and housing for a week in August.” I went up with two projects; to take another look at the Shakers, and to develop a piece I had done the previous season for a small company. And the Shakers took hold again. Once we got started, we couldn’t give it up. Like a terrier on an ankle. (laughs)
It was the first time we’d worked on the piece in five years. What we did was just about throw out everything from five years ago, and start all over.

Alfred has written a wonderful text. But it’s not written as a play. It’s done as confessions, because, of course, you had to confess; continuous confession was a part of their belief. Each dancer has a name taken from early Shaker testimonies. And Alfred based a number of the confessions on those testimonies, and the actual words Ann Lee said.
It’s a very rigorous atmosphere. Visually, it is very austere; you really get to work with two or possibly three values: grey and black and white. Looking at it yesterday, it reminded me of a painting by Agnes Martin.
I feel in some ways it’s a very impressionistic interpretation of the Shakers, but it’s been very demanding to work on.
I mean, with Bosch [who painted The Garden of Earthly Delights], you could go in any direction to you want—

—including straight up, as I seem to recall—

—because it is fantastical. You can be very inventive.
But this is a historical subject. You’re not working from a painting; you’re working from true facts here. It required a much more rigid palette.
The new work is its own genre; it’s neither a play nor a dance piece. It’s in the middle, as my work so frequently is, somewhere between the world of dance and the world of theater.
I think people are going like it. It’s not slow. It’s got what I call a wallpaper of driving rhythm.
It’s something like a very dry Shaker musical, I guess. I’m calling it Stomp for Shakers (cracks up)—she said laughing—(laughs)

That’ll get the audiences in! (laughs)

Well, I think it’s fascinating.
It’s being done by 11 dancers who are speaking text, many of them for the first time. They’ve been trained to sing the score a capella, as they’re dancing, with no instrumentation. I’m working with a wonderful musical director, Arthur Scalari, who was a percussionist from Garden.

When I think of the Shakers, I wonder what struck you most about the world they constructed for themselves.

First of all, it was a matriarchal society; a pacifist, utopian society. They were probably closest to the 20th-century’s idea of socialism. People had no need to own or possess things because the community was family, a community where everything was fair, people worked hard and all was ordered.
What I find attractive about it is that you were taken care of; there was a kind of clean, clear beauty—if you like that kind of beauty—and a simplicity that gave spiritual nourishment.

But then there was their belief in total, lifelong celebacy, and segregation of the sexes.

Which is where I think the big kink was. Procreation is a real necessity, and sexual desire is very natural to people. I think that was the fatal flaw; why it couldn’t last beyond 100 years.

It’s always struck me as a historic irony, one large writ. In some ways they were so far ahead of their times, particularly in terms of gender roles. Males and females were given equal status—that’s a radical notion for that time—

—it is radical. A woman was the leader of their community—

—and they’d concluded that divinity had male and female attributes. But sexuality and desire absolutely shut them down.

There’s so many things to admire about them. But that was kind of a fatal idea. For me it’s not that easy to verbalize, but I think the idea that sexual nature is to be denied is pretty wrongheaded.
And yet, for women who lived in those times, let’s think for a moment.
Babies were often born dead. Women died in childbirth. And women were denied the idea of sexual pleasure in terms of education. The Shakers gave enough love, pleasure and support to feel safe.
I’m not a rabid feminist, but I get it. Given people’s life expectancies back then, it’s not necessarily such a bad deal… if you were prepared to give up sex.
Their aesthetics are simply quite beautiful. You see them in the austerity of the architecture of the period, the furniture, the aesthetic of Shaker painting. Everything is very simple: Simple minds, clean, clear.
But then there’s the huge denial, which is that sexuality, passion and desire are just big parts of our lives. Maybe not every day, or in every period. But it’s a life experience.

It’s hard not to feel a certain poignancy for the Shakers. I understand there are a very small handful of practitioners at this point—

There are four, in Maine.

It’s like a species at the point of extinction. The world does not embrace this faith.

And they were persecuted like crazy.
We couldn’t do the persecution element, because we didn’t have a big enough cast, oddly enough.
It’s a fact that Mother Ann was dragged out of her house by her legs, and either sexually abused—we know at least they took her clothes off because they thought she was a man, disguised. Rocks were thrown.
They were chased through New England. She was imprisoned in Manchester for her beliefs.
That is something. But you need 20-something people to actually tell the story, and we just didn’t have them.
That’s why it’s somewhat impressionistic: I had to decide I just couldn’t do it. It wouldn’t have been believable.

Actually, that’s another thing that strikes me about the Shakers: It’s a group of people who made a very rigid social structure for themselves, based on the notion of necessity: “We must do this; what has come before did not suffice.” What they did, they felt they had to do.

It’s about control. Right?

I think so.

The austerity, the rigidity of their culture—it was all about control, a controlled environment. And yet their worship was out of control.
But, still, it was, within those walls. With those little, straight-backed chairs.
It was not comfortable.

Exactly. You can see it: Within that very rigid structure they created, there is something that shakes. That cannot stop trembling.
Within the austerity, within the grid, something is housed at the heart of it that really is its opposite, in some fundamental ways.

The rigidity made the wildness even wilder—the contrast or contradiction of it.

Ann Lee must have been an extremely compelling person. The community was founded in her strong relationship with her brother. She convinced William, who was a cavalry officer, very good looking—and who cavorted in barns with prostitutes, etcetera, in merry Manchester—to follow her. She convinced him, her husband and a few friends to see her vision and go her way.
The [Lincoln Center Theater] production was about her marriage. [Angel Reapers] is really not about her relationship with her brother, but that was a very, very strong relationship; a very, very intense relationship.
They needed each other. In thinking about it, I guess they were kind of in love with each other; their relationship had emotionally fulfilling aspects.
I think their feelings for each other were probably not within the Shaker rules on some level. There was always innuendo.
And Ann was not a saint; she could be very temperamental. We know this from historical readings.

Let’s talk for a bit about Shaker music and dance. Both were important parts of their culture. What do we know about Shaker dance? What do you incorporate in this work from it?

I think their music is utterly beautiful. You really see the influence it had on people like Copland, who just took it verbatim for Appalachian Spring.
It is fundamentally an American sound, and yet you hear a little bit of liturgical music from the 15th and 16th centuries. There are aspects where we’ve taken liberties with it; given that we don’t have professional singers, we’ve used the round as a musical idea, which I’m not sure that they did. But it was a wonderful way to develop the music.

There were different periods of Shaker dance. For Alfred and I, I think our hearts were more involved with Ann Lee and the early Shakers in America. When Ann Lee came to America, she settled, initially, in upstate New York. There’s actually going to be a quote in the program about it from a man who later left the Shakers. It was very free-form; people would kind of be “in meeting,” and wait for the holy spirit, or for the gift of a kind of religious inspiration. It would be very individual.
However, what they became known for were much more codified, rhythmic dances based on geometry—circles and lines.
Some of my research was definitely later Shaker period, in the mid-19th century, because it stylistically became so much more routinized or formalized.
The formality is a driving visual quality. Much of our piece is done that way.

[Angel Reapers] is really about a Shaker meeting. It starts in a meeting house and is contained within that house.
You begin to know the various individuals and their stories within that community. Their individual stories kind of burst through the seams of the more organized geometry in their movement. They have their own rhythm.
The individual stories are not the Shaker rhythms; they’re like strokes of color across the grid, if that makes sense.

There’s a married couple, where the wife requested that they dissolve marriage and become Shakers; we follow the course of the husband’s frustration. There’s a young couple who were raised as orphan children—the Shakers took in orphans—who fall in love during the piece, so there’s that problem to deal with.
The Shakers took in slaves. Whitney Hunter, who played Adam in Garden and was in the Graham Company; he plays a runaway slave.
It’s an international company. We have a wonderful Turkish dancer from Bill T. Jones’ company, Asli Bulbul; a very young Irish dancer and actor from County Cork, Luke Murphy. Sophie Bortolussi, who played Eve in Garden, is from France. We’ve got Patrick Corbin, who was with Paul Taylor’s troupe. It’s the first time he’s sung and done text, and he’s been incredible.
Luke plays a man named Valentine Rathbun, who was with the Shakers for 15 years and then turned on them. He testified that it was all just fake, that they drank spirits and ran around naked in the woods. Some of his testimony is in the piece.

I’m wondering how far you incorporate—or how far you can incorporate—other elements of the Shakers’ practices and faith. When we try to look into that world, it’s a considerable distance away. It’s not necessarily a small step, or even a series of small steps the imagination has to take; some are much larger than others.

They have beautiful sayings about their craft. “You make every chair for an angel to sit on.” “Live every day as if it were your last, and as if you would live a thousand years.” Clearly, these are good things to think on.
They had something called the gift of laughter. The gift of collecting eggs in the henhouse. The gift of sweeping the room. You’d have all these inspirations to live your daily life. Everything was always set up as a divine gift; all tasks, all duties, all living was for divinity.

It doesn’t sound too divorced from the Buddhist notion of mindful practice.

That’s exactly what I think. I’ve said that it reminds me of Buddhism, which is a religion I deeply respect.

I’ve spent a small amount of time among Buddhists. I do not identify as one, but I have a lot of respect for them. Buddhist writers have noted that the work of everyday life—chopping vegetables for the evening meal, sweeping the room—can be performed mindfully; that all work can be meditative, can be performed in service, or as an expression or manifestation of one’s faith or beliefs.

It’s very moving. It’s beautiful. We could all learn to live a little more like that.

But “faith embodied,” when applied to the Shakers, potentially covers all these things—and then goes to someplace very different. The term “Shaker,” after all, directly refers to another part of their practice: the spirit embodying the celebrants manifesting itself in radical physicality—the trembling, the shaking of the human form, that at times would suggest convulsion or paroxysm.

They would jump for hours at a time, or whirl through the night. There were times when the community would turn on someone, because they thought the Devil was in them, and try to hiss him out.
To a degree we do some of that—we’re not actually doing it, we’ve taken aspects of it; we’re doing impressions of it.

So how do you lay hands on, for lack of better terms, the possessions of spirit and glossolalia—speaking in tongues—that are parts of their faith?

There are moments, yes, where we depict some of that. I call that section “Bedlam.” And it’s somewhat short, because one of the hardest things as a choreographer—since doing a piece like this is very formal in a way—is to organize chaos.
It really is a ghastly task, because what you gain in improvisation is fabulous. But then you have to make it so it’s not improvisation. And some nights in some houses it works, and on other days it just doesn’t work at all.
One or two sections are chaotic, but they are the hardest things to do in a strange way—because you want it to stay fresh.
There’s one solo in piece that’s improvised because it’s just has more… life than if we had codified it.
It’s Whitney Hunter’s solo as a runaway slave. It’s just a rhythmic thing. And every time we’ve talked about setting it, I think, “Oh, it’s fine.” So we never did.
It changes a little bit, but he’s beginning to do it on a regular basis; it’s becoming more or less the same. But we’ve never actually set it.
It’s like jazz. If you’re in a jazz group, you kind of know the trumpeter is doing the same piece every night, and some nights it’s going to be a little wilder than others. It’s going to be improvised. But if it’s a standard, it’s still going to be within a certain framework.

I’m wondering if you’ve ever been in a circumstance or religious observation where you yourself witnessed speaking in tongues.

But I remember an amazing scene from the movie, Black Orpheus. It’s the scene where Orpheus goes to hell, but it’s a missing persons’ bureau in Rio de Janeiro. There’s an older woman smoking a cigar. She’s speaking in tongues; I’ve never forgotten it.
It’s not as developed in this work as it could be. We are working with a vocal coach, but that kind of thing needs a lot more work. As a choreographer/director, if I develop this further, that is something I would really like to invest more time with.
But you can’t just put people howling and screaming on stage, or doing a lot of shouting.
I think we’ve done a rather pristine rendering of this at this point. To go wild with it, you could really get your audience to run out.

Point taken. It’s hard to replicate. And harder, perhaps, to calibrate just how believable you really want it to be.

It’s very risky.

In what ways is the new work a departure for you?

I’ve never done an American subject before. I’ve always been kind of a Euro-chick. And I’ve never had counting in my work. It’s here because of the rhythms.
My extraordinary rehearsal director, Gabrielle Malone, has definitely been our inspiration. She’s always inventing rhythms, making up rhythms in the corner. She doesn’t take breaks. Then she’s teaching them and drilling and drilling and drilling them—because it has to be precise.
Her brain and mine are very good working together. Although I’m very attracted to rhythm, my head is in imagery and shaping. I guess I’m very right-brained and she’s very left-brained. She’s very analytical. And I’m not. (laughs)

It’s been an incredible adventure for me. They all are. They’re all my babies; some please audiences and critics better than others, but they’re all my children. And all collaborations are meaningful. They’re my beloveds, for the making, for the process.

You know that I go from subject to subject—like a student, endlessly pursuing, learning, getting involved and having the joy of learning something new.
Suddenly I’m visiting another country. I’ve heard about it, but now I’ve come in for a visit.
It’s never going into a studio and just making interesting movement.
My pleasure is the investigation of a subject; that’s really what I love. And to do it collaboratively, with a bunch of like-minded folks, is really fun. It’s like an intensive seminar, or a degree. I just love doing it.

It’s grad school. All over again.

Yes! This is my grad school!
I move around, from subject to subject, and then use whatever my so-called style is. Like a painter, going from haystacks to farmhouses to horses. It’s the subject matter and the musical working and the writing—all of that is what turns me on.
Not developing a technique; I think my work looks like my work. It’s mostly how you take a certain sensibility and investigate other sensibilities; how you integrate it into your own imagination.
It’s not quite a literary interest; it’s a little bit more abstract.
I wanted to be painter when I was young. I loved to dance when I did it. And I love movies but I don’t have the background.

I very much hope that, if we get a positive enough response, Alfred and I have been talking about making this piece a film, and not a theater piece.
To take this subject and find a wonderful, harsh New England house, and tell story through dance and film—what we’re doing on stage, but through a more linear way. Perhaps in black and white, as an independent film. We’ve actually applied for Sundance, but they took much younger people.
But that’s going to be harder to fund. And this we’re already doing on a shoestring. The set isn’t there, we’ve borrowed furniture from here, borrowed costumes from there.
But if the stage piece gets legs at all, if it took off that would be the next life for it.
I’ve always wanted to be a film director, honestly. (laughs) That be the truth.
And this could be a wonderful subject that would not be terribly expensive to make. It’s an extraordinary story—that you just can’t do without the support of a production.
But I’ve been chief producer to this point, and I’d need to know it’s interesting enough to people to let us go on to the next. As yet we don’t have a producer for it outside of the festival. However there are several theaters that are interested and are coming to see it down in Durham.

Because we don’t have a full-time company, it’s scary—because I have to dart around from place to place to look for work. Honestly.
But it’s also given me terrific freedom. Because I can go from the Shakers to maybe the production of an opera to a possible production of Macbeth with great actors in New York, coming up. So I need to have a longer list, because any of these things can happen.
And so I have to be Mother Courage: Try, and sell.
The life of a freelancer is…free. (laughs)

I think I know something about that.

But I haven’t talked about any of these other things, and they’re all engaging as well.
If the Shakers begin to work and if it’s meant to be we’ll have a further existence. And if it isn’t, then you move on.