It's been a busy year for choreographer/ director Martha Clarke.
In February she workshopped a new arrangement of Porgy and Bess for a Broadway producer—and learned that, on top of receiving the Scripps/ American Dance Festival Award for Lifetime Achievement, her company had a commission for a work at this year's ADF. In April, she was acting in scenes for Salvation Boulevard, an upcoming George Ratliff film starring Greg Kinnear and Marisa Tomei. Her role? "An eccentric, elderly dancer-choreographer," she crowed, dissolving into ironic laughter as she spoke by phone from New York last week.
But in the midst of her schedule, crowded as it is with film, theater and dance commitments, Clarke will be in Durham to unveil a new, full-length dance-theater piece inspired by, of all things, a religious sect that flourished in the 19th century called The United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing—better known as the Shakers.
In Angel Reapers, which will receive three performances beginning Monday, July 5, Clarke continues a collaboration with playwright/ screenwriter Alfred Uhry that has spanned most of the decade. (The dance is billed as a world premiere, but Clarke now says it is a work in progress.)
The playwright, best known for penning Driving Miss Daisy, approached Clarke at a Thanksgiving party with an odd conversational icebreaker. "He tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if I'd like to do a piece about the Shakers," she recalls. "I looked at him and my eyes crossed and I said, 'Well, I don't know!'"
For Clarke, approaching a new topic involves determining "how you take a certain sensibility and use it to investigate other sensibilities ... how do you integrate it into your own imagination?" As Clarke delved into the Shakers' history, she made several discoveries. Following its founder, Mother Ann Lee, the group emigrated to North America from England to escape religious persecution in the 1770s. They espoused a number of radical beliefs, including equality between the sexes, the conviction that the deity had both masculine and feminine attributes, and a lifelong commitment to communal living.
"It was a matriarchal society, a pacifist, utopian society," Clarke says. "They were probably closest to the 20th-century idea of socialism. People had no need to own or possess things because the community was family, a community where everything was fair. What I find attractive about it is that you were taken care of; there was a kind of clean, clear beauty and a simplicity that gave spiritual nourishment."
The Shakers became admired for the aesthetic economy of their architecture and furniture. But the ecstatic movements in their religious services—by which the world gave them their originally pejorative name—intrigued Clarke. "Early on, they were very free-form; people would be in meeting and wait for the spirit or the gift of a kind of religious inspiration. It would be very individual," Clark notes. "However, what they became known for were much more codified, rhythmic dances based on geometry, circles and lines."
In 2005, Clarke and Uhry developed Ann, the Word, a play with music and movement based on the life of Ann Lee. After giving it a workshop production with Frances McDormand and Michael Stuhlbarg, Lincoln Center Theater turned down a full production.
Clarke looks back on that first incarnation with a chuckle. ""Who does Biography—A&E? 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."
Last summer, Berkshire Theater Festival offered Clarke a weeklong residency in August. Though she took two projects with her, "the Shakers took hold again," she recalled. "Once we got started, we couldn't give it up. 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."
Replacing the original biographical impulse, Uhry's text now focuses on a series of individual confessions by different members in a congregation. "Continuous confession was a part of their belief," Clarke explains. "Each dancer has a name taken from early Shaker testimonies. And Alfred based a number of the confessions on testimonies."
Among the characters we'll meet in Angel Reapers are a couple that dissolves their marriage upon joining the Shakers, a runaway slave, two orphans who fall in love and a longtime sect member who later turned on the community.
The work "is really about a Shaker meeting," says Clarke. "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."
Angel Reapers marks several departures for Clarke. "I've never done an American subject; I've always been kind of a Euro-chick. And I've never had counting in my work," she says, referring to a system in which dancers have to keep precise track of where they are in a musical score. Her 11 dancers are being trained to sing a cappella from a score of 18th- and 19th-century Shaker hymns. The title, Angel Reapers, comes from one of them.
It's hard not to feel a certain poignant or ironic appreciation for the Shakers. In the way they viewed gender, they were far ahead of their time. But sexuality itself closed them down. "Procreation is a real necessity, and sexual desire is very natural to people," Clarke says.
"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," she continues. "The Shakers gave enough love, pleasure and support to feel safe."
But the security and tolerance offered by the Shakers came at a cost.
"The austerity, the rigidity of their culture—it was all about control, a controlled environment," she notes. "And yet the worship was out of control ... the rigidity made the wildness even wilder—the contrast or contradiction of it."
ADF audiences look in on a faith that leaves its followers shaken—literally—when Angel Reapers premieres this Monday through Wednesday.