Martha Clarke (born June 3, 1944) is an American theater director and choreographer noted for her multidisciplinary approach to theatre, dance, and opera productions. She is the creator of plotless, dreamlike works that are perhaps described by the term "moving paintings. Her work frequently emphasizes striking visual tableaux, often directly inspired by visual art, especially painting. Though dance is the primary basis of Clarke's training, she has maintained a career which spans and melds dance, theater, the visual arts, and opera. Probably her best-known original work is The Garden of Earthly Delights (1984), an exploration in theatre, dance, music and flying of the famous painting of the same name by Hieronymus Bosch. In June 2007, a new version of the show opened the 30th anniversary of the American Dance Festival. On November 19, 2008, the re-imagined Garden of Earthly Delights opened Off-Broadway at the Minetta Lane Theater in New York City; two extensions and five months later – it ran until April 5, 2009.
Clarke's latest production, Angel Reapers, a collaboration with Pulitzer prize-winner Alfred Uhry, ran at the Signature Theatre Company (New York City) from February 2 - March 20, 2016. This production won two Lucille Lortel Awards for "Outstanding Alternative Theatrical Experience" and for "Outstanding Choreography". Angel Reapers also toured New England with performances at The Joyce Theater in 2011.
Her production of Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera ran at the Atlantic Theater Company in NYC from March 12 to May 11, 2014. The production featured F. Murray Abraham and Laura Osnes.
Chéri, inspired by the classic 1920 novella by controversial French author Colette, ran from November 19, 2013 to Dec. 29, 2013 at the Signature Theatre Company (New York City). It featured dancers Herman Cornejo & Alessandra Ferri, actress Amy Irving and pianist Sarah Rothenberg. A world tour occurred in 2014 - 2015.
She created the full-evning work L’altra metá del cielo spring 2012 at La Scala Opera in Milan, Italy.
In 1990, she received a MacArthur Award, popularly known as the "genius grant" and, in June 2010, the 2010 Samuel H. Scripps/American Dance Festival Award for Lifetime Achievement. She is the recipient of the 2013 Dance Magazine Award. In 2014, she received her second Joe A. Callaway choreography award for Chéri. In 2009, she received her first Callaway choreography award for Garden of Earthly Delights. She is the only recipient in the SDC Joe A. Callaway award's history to receive two awards for choreography.
Born into a family of musicians in suburban Baltimore, she studied dance with Carol Lynn and Dale Sehnert in the preparatory program of the Peabody Conservatory, then going on to study at the dance program of the Juilliard School under Antony Tudor and Anna Sokolow. She then spent three years performing with the modern dance choreographer Anna Sokolow and the Dance Theater Workshop. She later became a founding member of Pilobolus Dance Theatre and Crowsnest before going on to a highly original career as a director/choreographer.
Martha Clarke is renowned not only as a choreographer and avant garde creator of whole new theatre works, but also as a director of operas and plays in the classic repertoire, such as the stage works of Mozart and Shakespeare. But even when serving as director in productions of well-known classics, her approach is frequently unconventional and ambitious.
She has choreographed for the Nederlands Dans Theater, the Joffrey Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Rambert Dance Company, and The Martha Graham Company, among others.
As a director, Clarke’s many original productions include The Garden of Earthly Delights (with musical score by Richard Peaslee), Vienna: Lusthaus Miracolo d’Amore, Endangered Species, An Uncertain Hour, The Hunger Artist, and Vers la Flamme. She directed the premiere of Christopher Hampton’s Alice’s Adventures Underground at the Royal National Theatre in London. Angel Reapers (with text by Alfred Uhry – Pulitzer Prize for Driving Miss Daisy) had its New York premiere at the Joyce Theater November 29 – December 11, 2011. In Spring 2012 she premiered a full-evening work at La Scala Opera in Milan, Italy.
In opera, Clarke has directed Mozart's The Magic Flute for the Glimmerglass Opera and the Canadian Opera Company, Cosi fan tutte for Glimmerglass, Tan Dun’s Marco Polo for the Munich Biennale, the Hong-Kong Festival, and the New York City Opera, and Gluck’s Orfeo and Euridice for the English National Opera and the New York City Opera.
She directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the American Repertory Theater and a music/theater work, Belle Epoque, based on the life of Toulouse-Lautrec at Lincoln Center Theater. She has collaborated with Richard Greenberg, Charles L. Mee, and Alfred Uhry, among many others.
While Clarke does not compose the musical scores or texts (when present) for her original works, her creative undertaking goes far beyond choreography to include and shape all aspects of production and direction, from conception and structure to details of music, text, lighting, and costumes. Britannica Online summarizes her wide-ranging choreographic approach in saying that her "emotionally evocative work draws extensively on theatrical elements."
Of all the many disciplines beyond dance from which Clarke's work draws inspiration, perhaps the most prominent influence comes from the visual arts, especially painting. In this preoccupation, Clarke is part of a general sensibility that connects such disparate artists as Peter Sellars, Pina Bausch, and Robert Wilson. New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman wrote of her Miracolo d'Amore in 1988 that it "... can be counted among the recent opera productions, films and theatrical presentations that in one way or another emulate painting. Franco Zeffirelli, George Lucas, Pina Bausch, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Robert Wilson and Peter Sellars share with Clarke this striking characteristic: They view the performing arts as a pretext for staging visual spectaculars."
In addition to the MacArthur Award, Clarke has received two grants from the Guggenheim Foundation as well as fifteen grants from the NEA. She has received the Drama Desk Award, two Obie Awards, and the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award. In 2016, Clarke won two Lucille Lortel Awards for Angel Reapers: one for "Outstanding Choreography" and another with collaborator Alfred Uhry for "Outstanding Alternative Theatrical Experience". In 2009 Clarke won the SDC's Joe A. Callaway award for choreography for Garden of Earthly Delights and in 2014 for Chéri. She is the only recipient in the Callaway award's history to receive two for choreography. The award honors excellence in direction and choreography in non-Broadway productions in New York. In June 2010, Clarke received the 2010 Samuel H. Scripps/American Dance Festival Award for Lifetime Achievement. The award is considered the most important lifetime award for choreographers.
She was the subject of the film Martha Clarke: Light and Dark for PBS, and her Garden of Earthly Delights has been filmed by the BBC.
Kaos, adapted from stories by Luigi Pirandello, received the first Tony Randall Foundation Award; and was presented at the New York Theater Workshop (2006).
In 2007, the NEA gave a grant for the remounting of The Garden of Earthly Delights under a program dedicated to the remounting of American masterworks.