Eden in the flesh


By Jerry Tallmer

It was the morning after the opening, and the raves were in, but already Martha Clarke was on the cell phone, talking with Rob Besserer, a remarkable actor/dancer who was central to the original “Garden of Earthly Delights” in 1984-87 and is now a bit older than he was then. She was begging him to step in, now, for an actor who had been knocked out by the sciatica that struck mid-performance the night before.

She and Besserer palavered back and forth as she threw significant glances in the direction of this journalist. Finally she hung up.

“He’ll think it over,” she said. “I’ve gotta get somebody by Monday. Those reviews are great, but we never have a dull moment with this show. Just one disaster after another. One day after opening and we have to have a replacement – that’s a first.”

The drama within the drama, ventured the journalist.

“I’m a drama queen,” said Martha Clarke, her laugh underlining the absurdity of it.

She glanced at the bowl of green peas the journalist was attacking.

“Green peas!” she said. “Green peas are what I had before I gave birth.”

David Grausman, the son to whom she gave birth in 1968, one year after the first triumph of her “Garden of Earthly Delights” at Off-Broadway’s Minetta Lane Theater, is now 40 years old and a co-producer of this second triumph of “Garden of Earthly Delights” at the Minetta Lane Theater.

“Garden of Earthly Delights,” conceived, directed, and choreographed by Martha Clarke, is a dance-theater piece derived from the apocalyptic triptych (circa 1505) of sexual innocence (naked in Eden) and carnal brutality (burning in hell) by the great Netherlandisch artist Hieronymus Bosch.

The one-hour dance piece – which plays to mid-January or beyond — gives Bosch’s grotesque imagery three-dimensional motion and beauty and terror and time and space and gritty humor, all wrapped into one by a company of 11 incredibly agile (not to say gorgeous) dancers and three musicians, to an exquisitely eerie score (winds, cello, concussion) by Richard Peaslee.

The stretch is from human drones to flying angels to (of course) fallen angels; from sheer sexual loveliness to a wart hog’s skull to a rape perpetrated by the spike of the cello; from a stately slow-motion gavotte to a lynching, a hanging, a burning at the stake, the flames created by the victim’s fluttering hands; from rude survival with a wheelbarrow of rags and bushels of potatoes to Eve’s bright green insidious apple.

And it came to pass – this extraordinary “Garden, back in 1984 – this way.

“One day in February of that year,” Martha Clarke says, “I got a call from my manager, Lyn Austin.” (Lyn Austin, who is now gone, was instrumental in the making of a lot of good art by a lot of good people.) “Lyn said: ‘I need an idea for an NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] application.’ I said: ‘Call me back in ten minutes.’

“I looked at my bookshelf, saw a book about Bosch, opened it up, and when Lyn called I said: ‘What about “Garden of Earthly Delights”? … All the things that come to me in a flash have been the most fun.”

These would include “Vienna Lusthaus,” “Miracolo d’amore,” “Endangered Species,” “Vers la flame,” and (from Kafka) “The Hunger Artist,” but it was “Garden of Earthly Delights” that came first, set the mark, and led to Ms. Clarke being given, out of the blue, a 1990 MacArthur “Genius” Award to the tune of $285,000, which sure came in handy at the time.

“Lyn was my manager for 12 years, and it has not been easy without her. That original ‘Garden’ took three-plus months [to create]. We did it first in my little tiny studio in Connecticut, in the house I got that same year.

“With the original company, the show was about them, the dancers, everybody creating their own parts. I was a member of it [as well as directing and choreographing]. Each dancer is like a special violin. I have to open my lenses to what they bring, and not impose anything by me.”

She did have one advantage: She had seen the actual Bosch triptych – which is in the Prado in Madrid – more than once during her work abroad as a rising dancer in the 1970s.

Martha Clarke was born and raised in Baltimore, the daughter of lawyer and jazz musician George Clarke, and of Mity Cahn Clarke – “a vivacious, fun-loving, athletic woman who liked to play piano … but was, you know, a mom.”

This journalist happens to have gone to high school with two of Martha’s aunts: Shirley Clarke, who produced “The Connection,” “The Cool World,” and other offbeat films, and Elaine Dundy, novelist, who married British theater critic Kenneth Tynan.

Martha went to private school and then Juilliard, where she studied dance with Anthony Tudor (“whom I worshipped”) and Anna Sokolow, whom she did not.

“If you worked with her it was hard to worship her. She was very tough – terrifying, severe. I worked as an apprentice to her in Israel when I was 18. Came home, decided I wanted another life, wanted nice people around me.”

Some of those people were involved with her in founding Pilobolus, the athletic dance company that preceded “Garden” by a dozen years.

So, Martha, may we now talk about sex? – sex, in any event, as so beautifully conveyed clothed-but-seeming-imclothed young men and women (let us forget the so horrible parts) in “Garden of Earthly Delights.”

“In the original show,” she says, “when we had to use heavier fabric, we used to draw the bosom line on the cloth. Now we’re able to use a very transparent body suit. They look naked even though they’re not.

“It’s fascinating – isn’t it? – to watch them enter on all fours” – no visible heads, butts up in the air like so many Edenic baboons. “Or like Picasso’s goat at MoMA. In the original show I used to call them dogs or deer or somewhere in between.”

Bemused pause.

“Yesterday, in the country, in Connecticut, I looked out and three deer were leaping across the lawn. Beautiful.”

She has also held onto the apartment on a good block near Washington Square where she’d lived for many years. “My son lives there now. He lets Mama visit from time to time.” David’s father is the sculptor Philip Grausman, to whom Martha was married for 15 years.

Well, Martha, here we are a quarter century after the first “Garden” at Minetta Lane. How’s it been this time?

“I’ve lived through more complexities and I’ve learned some tricks of the trade. Rhythm and timing and aerial work. But this production has been a struggle. The process started four years ago. Then, this October, the stock market spiraled out of control and I lost my producers.

“I had 17 people hired to work into January, and spent days on the phone trying to get money elsewhere. Got very little. I said to my son: ‘I’m going to make just one last phone call’ – to a woman recommended by Margaret Cotter, the owner of the Minetta Lane. Margaret e-mailed me the telephone number and name of this woman she did not know.

“I called her and said: ‘I’m Martha Clarke.’

“She said: ‘The Martha Clarke? Why are you calling me?’

“I said: ‘Because I need such-and-such amount of money, and I need a producer.’ And she said: ‘All right.’ Her name is Rhoda Herrick, and she’s incredible.” Then Charles Reinhart, artistic director of the American Dance Festival, had me put it on at Duke University as a work in progress, and here we are.

“But it’s been a struggle,” said Martha Clarke. “I feel like Sisyphus. In this business,” she said, “it’s all a crapshoot.”

She sat there, hoping her cell phone would ring, hoping it would be Rob Besserer, hoping he would say yes.

GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS. Conceived, directed, and choreographed by Martha Clarke. Music by Richard Peaslee. Presented by Rhoda Herrick at the Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane, (212) 307-4100, GardenOfEarthlyDelightsNYC.com.