The Pleasures of the Flesh
Maybe it's because she has once again drawn the impetus for a theater piece from a painter that Martha Clarke's new "Belle Epoque" exerts a more persuasive pull than some of her other recent work. When she first began developing her now-familiar form of roughly hour-long pieces that delicately tread the line between dance and theater, she drew inspiration from paintings—Bosch for her ground-breaking "Garden of Earthly Delights" in 1984, and then Egon Schiele (and Klimt) for the riveting 1986 "Vienna: Lusthaus." A revival of the latter piece enjoyed an extended run at New York Theater Workshop not long ago, but I unfortunately missed seeing it. But even through the haze of an 18-year-old recollection, one can sense that "Belle Epoque," which places the grotesquely sensual world of Toulouse-Lautrec's paintings—and aspects of his life—onstage, bears a kinship to that earlier work. Both are collaborations with the playwright Charles L. Mee.
Ms. Clarke has turned to literary sources of inspiration, such as Kafka and Chekhov, with intriguing results, but sometimes the pieces felt dry and detached, as she explored and commented on her source material without always drawing the audience fully into its world. But here, the milieu of decadence and desperation, in which dancing has its rightful place, that she and her collaborators have captured with an in-your-face immediacy provides many memorable moments. As figures from Toulouse-Lautrec's art, memory and imagination swirl, clutch, taunt and revel in the pleasures of the flesh, the hauntingly lit stage picture evokes a portrait of momentary intense pleasures within a landscape of mournful dissipation.
The brilliantly selected and arranged music—primarily French classical and cabaret selections from the early twentieth-century—plays a major role in "Belle Epoque." The unusual quartet consisting of violin, piano, bandoneon and horn (alternating with tuba) that plays primarily from an upstage area within the somewhat off-kilter café setting brings a touch of the unexpected even to familiar music. This is true right form the start, when we first spot Lautrec, played by Mark Povinelli as alternately volatile and miserable, alone at a small table, going through the ritual of preparing and drinking absinthe, accompanied by Debussy's "Afternoon of a Faun." The familiar languorous music takes on a sharp uneasiness with the bandoneon in the mix. Jill Jaffe, who adapted and arranged the music (and performs on the violin) has been unerring in her choices. They feel familiar, yet surprising, and keep the viewer on edge, adding to the overall sense that anything can happen next.
The louche, supercilious women—cancan dancers and prostitutes, gorgeously costumed by Jane Greenwood in exquisitely dresses with layered underskirts that suggest the fleshy possibilities beneath the superficial propriety—are figures of temptation who mesmerize and torment Lautrec, who occasionally engages in abrupt, awkward encounters with them. They endure his attentions but then cast him aside as one would spurn a dog. When they engage in a rough, fierce cancan, he can watch and admire from the sidelines, always aware that he is an observer, never an integral part of this bawdy, careless world that lures and inspires him.
Among the non-dancers is Joyce Castle, a veteran New York City Opera mezzo-soprano who delivers several slyly suggestive, gorgeously articulated cabaret songs of the era, most of them witty and/or suggestive, performed here in translations by Michael Feingold. Identified in the program as "Yvette, a chanteuse," she is not quite in the thick of the action, which is mostly carried by dancers, but seems to always be very aware of everything that is going on. Another impressive, resonant performance is given by Ruth Malaczech, one of the founders of Mabou Mines. As "La Gouloue, an entertainer at the Moulin Rouge," she ambles languidly and delivers wise, world-weary speeches that she manages to make pointed and significant. Older than the others, worn out and clearly having been through it all, she seems to keep going simply because there is no alternative, and the work's final, wistful moments belong to her.
Dances, fights, and the occasional monologue arise and recede, all as seen through the eyes of Lautrec, who is often insulted or subjected to great cruelty. Mr. Povinelli is clearly a lot shorter than the 4-foot-eleven-inch Lautrec, so he appears dwarfed by the figures looming around him. A man who is supposedly his friend criticizes his paintings as ugly and sordid, telling him, "you vilify people, you make them more obscene than they really are." In his encounters with the tall, lean, impossibly dapper, black-clad Rob Besserer, Mr. Povinelli looks doll-like, and at one point is dragged along, his body limp. Earlier, he was casually dumped out of his chair. The world of these people fascinates him, but to them he seems to be a plaything.
Mr. Besserer, a longtime Clarke stalwart, gives a richly detailed, mesmerizing performance as "Valentin, known as the boneless." Arching back suggestively and sinisterly, he seems to be prancing rather than walking. There is a rivetingly nasty sequence when he inspects the women's rear ends one by one, as they parade across in their petticoats. It's one of the reminders that all sorts of diseases were rampant in Lautrec's world—he himself was ill form his twenties on, and died of syphilis at 36. Another powerful performance is given by the bold, luscious Gabrielle Malone, who is paired with former NYCB dancer Robert Wersinger as a pair of lovers who can't take their hands off each other, who revel in each others' bodies. The sad, deprived Lautrec can only watch them in wonder, knowing he will never be of their world. As he looks back over the vibrant, sensuous displays that inspired his work, he knows that death is approaching; at one point he says," I know the next great event of my life will be my death," and near the end of the work his tiny coffin is borne across by four men in black, to the ironic accompaniment of Ms. Castle artfully delivering a song about desire.
All photos by Paul
2, No. 47