Campus & Community

Crossing genres

4 min read

Martha Clarke dances, directs, and flies

Dancer, choreographer, and director Clarke waves to a member of the audience. (Staff photo Lindsay Pierce/Harvard News Office)

Director and choreographer Martha Clarke shared her insights on flight, physicality, and intuition Monday (Feb. 9) in a conversation with New York Times senior cultural correspondent John Rockwell ’62, billed as one of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study’s lectures in the humanities. Clarke’s production of Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” is currently playing at the American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.), which hosted and co-sponsored the event.

Sitting well in front of the stage at the Loeb Drama Center (so as not to tempt anyone to try the production’s flying apparatus, she claimed), Clarke nonetheless took the audience far behind the scenes of “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” From casting and costuming choices to collaborations with other A.R.T. artistic staff to the mechanics of the rigs that let the play’s fairies take flight, Clarke’s talk was a revelatory treat to those who had seen the play and a temptation to those who had not.

In her opening remarks, Radcliffe Institute Dean Drew Gilpin Faust described Clarke’s interdisciplinary artistic career as reflecting the boundary-crossing

For more information on Clarke’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ at the American Repertory Theatre, visit

spirit of Radcliffe. Named after modern dance pioneer Martha Graham at the suggestion of a dancer aunt, Clarke is a graduate of the Juilliard School and was the first female member of Pilobolus Dance Theatre. She’s directed many of her own productions as well as operas “The Magic Flute,” “Cosi fan tutte,” and “Orfeo ed Euridice,” among others. This production of Shakespeare is Clarke’s “first dead playwright,” she said.

Several times, as Rockwell attempted to probe Clarke’s motivations, whether digging for a feminist interpretation of the play’s opening scenes or looking for meaning in its minimalist set, she rebuffed him with her far less calculated working style.

“Quite often, I don’t know why I make the selections I make,” she said. “I kind of instinctually and intuitively move through decisions.”

Her unusual characterization of Puck, the mischievous fairy whose magic sparks chaos, for instance, sprung from a relatively speedy decision to cast the dark, bearded actor Jesse J. Perez in the role. “I know when I see someone whether I want them or not,” she said. And while she knew she didn’t want a traditionally cute Puck, she let Perez’s personality drive Puck’s character.

Physicality has long been a hallmark of Clarke’s work, and in “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” as in several previous works, she’s explored airborne physicality. The play’s fairies fly across the Loeb’s stage tethered by harnesses developed by technician Peter Foy in 1954, when he sent Mary Martin aloft as Peter Pan.

While the effect is of freedom from the earthly ties of gravity, the technology of flight is far from freeing, Clarke explained. The flying fairies, three of whom have danced with Clarke before, wear leather harnesses with shoulder straps; hooks on the sides let them rotate in jaw-dropping somersaults and back flips. The rigs can be uncomfortable and the fliers suffer headaches and nausea at first, she said, and flight isn’t cheap: Two technicians are required backstage to launch each fairy into flight.

Opening new realms of movement challenges the flyers, as well. “When you are flown, you have to abandon your own sense of muscularity,” said Clarke. “It’s a matter of doing less and not more. If you even drop a shoulder this way, your whole body will fly that way.”

Yet audiences and the director, who says she has always flown in her dreams, find the end result stunning. “It’s everything you’d imagine it to be,” said Clarke. “It’s animating the body like a cartoon.”

In conversation with Rockwell and in response to audience questions, Clarke revealed her inspirations, which derive from a dizzying array of sources: Fellini films, paintings by Goya and Chagall, Mozart and Chopin. She even admitted to cribbing a gesture or two from popular culture offerings like “Sex and the City.”

She refused, however, to satisfy one audience member’s attempt to commit the dancer/choreographer/director to one of her several boundary-crossing genres.

“Three weeks ago, I was most committed to Shakespeare,” she said, adding that she’s now handed the play over to the performers and moved her commitment onto new projects. “You have to have a little bit of a love affair to do it every time…. From the opening night on, it’s a matter of detachment and looking for the next object to love.”