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Martha Clarke and Alfred Uhry turn the religious order into dance-theatre
At first it looks like an odd coupling: Martha Clarke, the doyenne of evocative dance-theatre, and Alfred Uhry, the straight-ahead storyteller of works such as Driving Miss Daisy and Last Night at Ballyhoo. More than ten years ago, however, when they were both at a Thanksgiving party in Litchfield County, Uhry gave Clarke an idea, and that seed has blossomed into Angel Reapers. A dance-theatre piece, it begins performances on February 2 at Signature Theatre.
Back then, Uhry suggested Clarke look at a biography of Ann Lee, the founder of the Shakers, an 18th- and 19th-century religious order known for its strict celibacy and spasmodic, vibrating movements that supposedly emanated from the self-purging of sins.
The pair quickly realized that Lee's life and legacy lent themselves to a non-traditional storyline. "For the Shakers the line between reality and the world beyond is pretty thin," Uhry says. "It seems best explored in the way Martha has done – through movement and abstraction, building the piece around the dancers."
The focus on movement has steered Uhry toward a different type of writing, in which he and Clarke, who currently has a residency at Signature, take a more abstract and emotional look at the characters and the story. He slyly notes that working this way has unexpected benefits: "Dancers will do anything. They don't ask actor-y questions which can slow things up. They just do it."
For her part, Clarke describes the work as "a kind of Shaker tone poem." The 70-minute piece – which comes to Signature after a 2011 tour -- features original Shaker songs which are sung a cappella by the cast, shaped by music director Alfred Solari. The story still has an arc, and the characters' "testimonies" or "confessions" suggest they came to the order from a past filled with pain, loss, and hidden desires.
The show's percussive elements also evoke what's buried. Laughing, Clarke says, "This is Stomp for Shakers," but she adds that the rhythms have a purpose. "I was drawn to that intensity. That sublimation. That bottled-up carbonation which eventually exploded."
Angel Reapers has continued evolving since the tour, and this new version is presented in the round, breaking the fourth wall and benefiting from the more intimate space of Signature's Linney Theatre. This production not only has some new dancers, but also features an established actress in the pivotal role of Mother Ann: Sally Murphy (Broadway's Carousel, Clarke's The Threepenny Opera at the Atlantic).
"One of the things we're most happy about in this version is having Sally," Uhry says. "[She] allowed Martha and me to strengthen the focus of her story."
Clarke adds, "She opened up new possibilities for the role. So do the other new cast members, and with this new chemistry you get a new dish."
Meanwhile, Clarke continues investigating faith: She's next set to create a large dance-theatre piece for the Signature that deals with spirituality and animals, both of which play an important role in her life. "I'm a devoted pantheist," she says. "A great believer in nature."
Photo of Martha Clarke by Gregory Costanzo. Top photo adapted from the promotional poster for Angel Reapers.
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