Martha Clarke Shakes Things Up


What began as a tap on the shoulder at a Thanksgiving party in Litchfield County has developed over the past 10 years into an innovative dance-theater piece teeming with religious fervor and repressed sexuality.

At that neighborly gathering, Bethlehem’s Alfred Uhry, the Pulitzer Prize-, Tony- and Oscar-winning writer, best known for “Driving Miss Daisy,” suggested to director-choreographer Martha Clarke, who has a home nearby in Sherman, that she should take a look at a biography of Ann Lee, the founder of the Shaker Movement in America, primarily in New England. 

He thought the material might prove intriguing for the MacArthur “genius” grant recipient known for her weaving of dance, music, text and visual art into highly theatrical, sometimes dreamy, sometimes sensual pieces. They include “Garden of Earthly Delights,” based on the Hieronymus Boschtriptych; “Vienna: Lusthaus,” about Austria’s turn-of-the-century society; “Endangered Species,” which featured dancers, actors and animals, including an elephant named Flora; and “Chéri,” for two ballet stars and Amy Irving, loosely drawn from Colette’s erotic novels. 

Clarke’s familiarity with the sect was limited to its simple, elegant and utilitarian furniture. But as she learned more, Clarke became fascinated with Lee, who founded the matriarch-based order that began in the U.S. in the late 18th century. It taught a doctrine of denial, called for complete separation from the outside world, disallowed marriage and forbade the bearing of children. (Lee had given birth to four stillborn babies.) Thinking that sex was the root of all evil, she demanded celibacy. 

The sect is also known for its sudden ecstatic movements and sounds by its members during worship services.

Bottled-up passion, spontaneous movements and conflicts of communal life seemed like a natural for Clarke, a founding member of the dance-theater group Pilobolus.