Iowa Partnership in the Arts debuts In the Night


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Lights are dimmed dark with spotlights floating around different square feet of the stage, and the audience catches glimpses of characters dressed in masks or top hats carrying canes. Newspapers are scattered everywhere. Eyes are drawn to the bed in the center of the floor.

This scene is only one of the many created by legendary choreographer and avant-garde theatrical innovator Martha Clarke in the Iowa Partnership in the Arts Première. She came to the University of Iowa to create an original piece for UI students and faculty, and the product, In the Night, will have its world première at 8 p.m. today in the Theatre Building's Thayer Theatre.

Performances will continue through Nov. 20 at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and at 2 p.m. Nov. 14. Admission is $5 for students, $12 for senior citizens, and $17 general admission.

The production is based on science, so Clarke chose dreams; she wanted something that didn't involve a lot of precision. In the Night is a dance/theater celebration of light and dream imagery.

The visually intense performance explores everything from the beautiful to the grotesque and ranges from comforting to disturbing. The production is designed to make audience members feel they are a witness to a combination of a dream and nightmare.

The process of creating the piece was unique, said Chris Masters, a dance TA. Clarke is different from other choreographers and directors; she uses the technique of improvisation. Her research of dreams and the brain was compiled with the help of UI scientists. Once collaborators and performers stepped into the theater, choreography began to naturally come out of the moment — it was very spontaneous.

"It's fun to see how Martha works and imagines things on the fly," said J.D. Mendenhall, a UI marketing manager for the Division for Performing Arts.

Clarke's goal in a choreographed routine is to move provocatively and contain moments of beauty. She said it was fun to explore all the creativity and possibilities with the theater. She usually works in a conventional space, such as a studio room without extra effects; therefore, she wasn't comfortable with the griddle ceiling and catwalk at first.

But the hardest part of the project for everyone, especially Clarke, was the time constraint. For a 12- to 16-week process, the team had six weeks.

"It's been intense — it was a lot of work in a short time," Clarke said.

The partnership, which is developed and performed every fall, was created 18 years ago to commission teams of the country's finest theater artists to create major new works with students, faculty, and staff. Two years ago, the Division of Performing Arts established "Creating the Future" to collaborate with Hancher Auditorium.

Many have supported the effort to connect the arts and sciences. George de la Pena, an associate dance professor, suggested that Clarke be selected for the partnership this year.

Clarke has danced, choreographed, and directed productions all her adult life. She was a founding member of the Pilobolus Dance Theatre, had her own dance company, and collaborated with many influential people in the performing-arts community.

She collaborated with music director and composer Arthur Soloari and Tony award-winning lighting designer Chris Akerlind. He works with Clarke a lot, so naturally he enjoyed bringing In the Night to life. He refers to the piece as an "oddball project," the type of work he is drawn to.

"I love what I do and, in this context, the piece is so dependent on unconventional lighting that my imagination is really stimulated," he said.

Besides working with each other, Akerlind and Clarke also produced and cast the actors for In the Night with UI theater faculty and students. It has been an adventure for the pair, and Clarke is happy to work with a new group of people.

"We laugh every night at something or someone," she said.

Akerlind has enjoyed working with the students, as well.

"I've taught quite a bit, and so I feel at home in a context mixing professionals and students," he said.

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