Esplanade. The Rite of Spring.
The Garden of Earthly Delights.
If you've been to the American Dance Festival in recent years, the list of dance works above should sound nearly as familiar as the artists who created them: Pilobolus. Eiko & Koma. Paul Taylor. Shen Wei. Martha Clarke.
If you missed them earlier, this is the summer of their reappearance. The five works above—and at least 11 others by artists including Susana Tambutti, Baba Chuck Davis, Laura Dean and Mark Morris—will be revisited during the next seven weeks (in addition to nine U.S. and four world premieres) as the ADF begins a two-year celebration of 30 years in North Carolina.
The questions are obvious. Why return? Why restage? Why resee?
Because, as with theater, dance begins to vanish the moment the curtain goes down—and DVDs capture but a fraction of the whole performance. Whole technologies, bearing names like Laban and Benesh, have been developed to precisely record everything that's happening in the moments of performance. Still, dance preservationists struggle—hard—when trying to remount even works that were once famous.
Regional dancegoers may remember the lengths dance historian Muriel Topaz had to go to in order to reconstruct Antony Tudor's suite The Planets before Duke Dance presented it in 2002: A dancer with Alzheimer's disease held the key to sections the three other dancers still living had forgotten. When the music began, the dance unspooled once again, out of time, from decades before.
The only true art museum or gallery that dance has is the stage. Restaging is the only thing guaranteed to keep the works alive. But there are other reasons to present what has already been seen. Not only do audiences get the chance to find something new in something old. Sometimes creators do as well.
Enter Martha Clarke. As it turns, the ADF hasn't just presented her dance theater works over the years. It also had a lot to do with her becoming a solo choreographer in the first place. "I was here in 1978 with Pilobolus," she recalls, "very frustrated at the time. There was a book of matches in the room. I picked up my unitard, lit a match and told Charlie [Charles Reinhart, longtime director of the ADF] that's what I wanted to do with my costume.
"He said, 'Why don't you do an evening of your own work a year from now instead?'"
Seven years later, her full-length piece The Garden of Earthly Delights was at the 1985 ADF. That fall, Joe Papp and the New York Shakespeare Festival presented the hybrid of dance, theater and music in New York, to stellar reviews. A group of seven dancers and three musicians portrayed sections from all three elements of Bosch's work: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the garden itself, and its aftermath, Hell.
The work was a smash. In the New York Times, critic Mel Gussow found it an "inspired syntheses of the visual and the performing arts." Robert Brustein's review in the New Republic termed The Garden "arguably one of the most significant works of postwar American theatrical art."
Since then, Clarke has portrayed Vienna in the time of Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt (Vienna:Lusthaus), Kafka's ironic short story The Hunger Artist, and put the stories of Chekhov (Vers la Flamme) on stage. This summer, the ADF opens with a remounting of The Garden of Earthly Delights.
When asked "Why return?" Clarke's answer begins with the shape of a theater in New York: 37 Arts, a possible venue for a 2005 remounting of the work. "The shape started me rethinking it. You could do things there we couldn't do in the original production.
"I've choreographed for another 23 years, and my physical vocabulary has expanded; what I respond to and what I like. I've done a few more shows with aerial work, and I've had so much fun working on flying and learned so much about the potential of it, that I felt that The Garden was a terrific place to expand from. The variations of rhythm and silence and image I've lived with 23 more years—so I couldn't go back and do exactly what I've done."
She stops for a moment. "Balthus repainted his canvases, you know. He never finished them. The ones that were at home, he just kept working on them. I feel a little like him these days."
"Tastes have changed—I have changed," she continues. "I'll question something now. I'll say 'Why are we doing something; is it relevant? What comes before? What comes after?' rather than just falling in love with an image and putting it out there."
Distance on past experiences off stage have had their influence as well. "My work used to be somewhat autobiographical," she says, describing an erotic and violent duet with a cellist toward the end of the original version of "Hell."
"At the time I made that dance, I was in a very difficult personal situation with someone. I think the work kind of gave vent to my furies; it's where I was then.
"Now I'm in a very different time of my life. It's interesting to go back and retouch what those emotions were about. Movement and images are abstract, but at times they can touch a kind of archetypal imagery. I think it's interesting to go back with a fork and poke around with that stuff now."
Clarke reports she has almost completely re-choreographed the Garden of Eden scene—which must give those touched by the innocence and budding sensuality of the original significant pause. And Hell is much larger now, and darker.
She's changing a masterpiece. It frightens her. "But if I'm not scaring myself, doing something different, I don't want to do it anymore."
Longtime dance-goers get their second glimpse of Paradise (and that other place) starting Thursday night, the first in a summer of visions. And revisions.
Correction (June 11, 2007): We misstated the year that The Garden of Earthly Delights was presented at the ADF; it was 1985.