In one of those curious period fads that crop up regularly, early-twentieth-century Viennese culture is all the rage in early-twenty-first-century America. New York's Neue Galerie — a gem of a museum devoted to fin-de-sicle Austrian (and twentieth-century German) art — opened in 2001; the Berkshires in western Massachusetts hosted the Vienna Project last summer, with a slew of complementary exhibitions and performances; and Martha Clarke's Vienna: Lusthaus (revisited), which premiered last spring in New York, is on a nationwide tour with a stop at Power Center Friday and Saturday, February 7 and 8.
Clarke began her dance career with the acrobatic modern dance group Pilobolus in 1973 and subsequently developed her own brand of visionary dance-theater fusions with French choreographer Felix Blaska for their company, Crowsnest. The original Vienna: Lusthaus — conceived, choreographed, and directed by Clarke — was produced in 1986.
With music by Richard Peaslee and text by Charles L. Mee, Vienna, according to program notes, explores "the unconscious world from which our tormented waking world springs eternally." This is a society in which each daily encounter is fraught with the collective concerns of dreams and discrimination, fantasy and impending war. Throughout its eighty-five minutes (performed without intermission), Vienna distills the decadence of bourgeois Viennese society at the dawn of the twentieth century with artistic economy and well-chosen signifiers.
It also takes seriously turn-of-the-century architect and theorist Adolf Loos's precept that "all art is erotic." Flush with sex and malaise, Clarke's eleven dancers and actors waltz, couple, and undress to spoken narrative fragments and stream-of-consciousness vignettes, much of it culled and adapted from the letters, journals, and diaries of Dr. Freud's patients. Like the femmes fatales Gustav Klimt painted in that era, the women onstage — clothed or unclothed — are ready to kiss and be kissed: sexually powerful, yet simultaneously expectant, alluring, and uncomplicated.
In a nod to Loos's call for spatial clarity, Robert Israel's set design is sleek and spare, with cream-colored walls broken by wide doors on each side — a far cry from the expected overstuffed crimson cliché of Viennese interiors. A translucent scrim remains in place at the proscenium, eloquently distancing the audience from the angst onstage. Solo musicians appear and reappear, alternately weaving in and out of the action.
In one especially poetic section, snow begins to fall; it's winter in the valley of the Danube. Three ladies begin to skate with long slow-motion glides forward; men with women notched at the hip spin in endless circles on the "ice." The conclusion's hushed gravitas feels just right.
Don't go to Vienna expecting conventional theater or dance. This is Continental-inspired Tanztheater at its most experiential: captivating, elusive, and frankly sexual. Book a baby-sitter.