Old World ballet versus theater as erotic collage. Martha Clarke's opus proves controversial

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Even before it opened here as one of the more anticipated entries in New York's International Festival of the Arts, Martha Clarke's new theatrical collage, ``Miracolo d'Amore,'' had stirred up controversy during its premi`ere at the Spoleto Festival USA. If progressive Off Broadway has come to laud Clarke's dreamlike canvases for their evocative power - theater composed as much from dance, movement, and sound as from text - Charleston, S.C., audiences were less enamored of the sensuousness of Clarke's most daring work to date. Daring, for reasons beyond the use of full frontal male and female nudity. If Clarke, a former member of the Pilobolus Dance Theater, stretched the boundaries of the avant garde in her first major theater work, ``The Garden of Earthly Delights,'' by using dance, music and aerial acrobatics in a textless, theatrical reinvention of the Hieronymus Bosch triptych, the choreographer-cum-director has gone to new lengths here by eliminating any narra-tive pretense.

Unlike ``Garden'' and her two other major (scripted) works, ``Vienna: Lusthaus'' and ``The Hunger Artist,'' ``Miracolo d'Amore'' is not grounded in Boschian painting, Kafkaesque neurosis, or historical events. Rather, this imagistic exploration of erotic love, which draws its visual references largely from the 18th-century Venetian artist Tiepolo, is a performance collage disciplined only by the precise and haunting images of Clarke's imagination. It is the auteur director's most personal - and possibly problematic - work to date, a feminist fantasy whose visual power is undercut by polemical character motivation.

Clarke has said the piece began with Italo Calvino's fairy tales, which were reworked into an abstract text by Charles Mee. But the director's intense collaboration with a longtime core of artists, including dancers Rob Besserer and Paola Styron, eventually resulted in abandoning the script - and much of the piece's narrative motivation. What remains are the allusive visual references - Tiepolo's white-ruffed, hunchbacked Pulcinellas; Richard Peaslee's operatic score, with lyrics from Dante and Petrarch sung in Italian; Robert Israel's burnt sienna Palladian set, a fun-house Venetian piazza with tilting, lintled walls, windows, and doors, lit starkly by Paul Gallo - a serene backdrop for the actor/dancers' primitive couplings and caresses.

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It is this collision of visual and aural opposites that hurtles ``Miracolo d'Amore'' into an almost tactile exploration of the war between the sexes. If ``Garden of Earthly Delights'' charted humanity's fall from grace, and ``Vienna: Lusthaus'' chronicled the degradation of a society, ``Miracolo d'Amore'' is unadulterated sexual politics.

The seven men, cone-hatted buffoons, begin by skulking about, spying on the women, who are, as John Cheever once described his female protagonists, ``naked, beautiful, and unshy.'' The seven women are sculptural in their nudity, entering the stage in a shaft of gilded light, a Matisse-like procession, on tiptoe and with hands held. Later, clothed in gauzy skirts and large petals evocative of Bromvilla's ``The Court of Love,'' in which each woman is a different flower, they are wooed and won by the clownish men. Later, they are raped and beaten.

These images of beauty and bestiality are mirrored in the aural tapestry. Operatic singing - mostly soprano and countertenor - yields to more primal sounds of ocean and wind; the visual images become increasingly elemental: A woman gives birth to a shell; a Christ-like figure is fed spaghetti from a bowl; a woman is caressed by a skeleton; a nude man becomes a fish. The piece ends, after a shootout among the men, with the women exiting in their Matisse-like line. A message of female endurance? Probably. What lingers is Clarke's artistry, a kinetic collision of images that surges beyond sense to the subliminal.

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