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A voluptuous breakthrough: Rebecca Wender glows in Martha Clarke's phantasmagoria, Belle Epoque.

There were no titters or gasps the night I saw the latest Martha Clarke work, Belle Epoque, at Lincoln Center's small-scaled Mitzi Newhouse Theater.

But, says Rebecca Wender, it's not unusual for her to hear a reaction when she enters half-nude for an erotically-charged encounter with Mark Povinelli, the actor who plays Toulouse-Lautrec in this can-can fantasia. The show, with text by Charles L. Mee (who also wrote Clarke's best-known work, Vienna: Lusthaus) and music-hall songs of the period, is a kind of Lautrec poster come to life--cabaret performances interspersed with episodes from the artist's absinthe-fueled debauches. As the Belly Dancer, Wender is both entertainer and private fantasy, a shameless temptress and a kind of sexual meditation.

It's not just the nudity, and its proximity to the audience in that intimate space, that cause the ripples. With her plump breasts and rounded belly, Wender is not the kind of dancer we're used to seeing in the buff. In fact, she's not the kind of dancer we're used to seeing. Sure, Hairspray makes the case for plus-size dancers. And a few of the more daring postmodern choreographers, like Bill T. Jones, have gone out of their way to include different kinds of bodies in their companies. But on the whole, says Wender, "My body is not the body you think of when you think of the stereotypical dancer."

She's been made aware of that from the time she started dancing in after-school programs in Baltimore. "Every young woman in dance has problems with how they look. It's always a rough spot," she says. "But I was in very traditional ballet training. You're only 9 or 10, and you're being told you might not be a professional! It was definitely hard."

When early puberty turned her from a chubby kid into a curvy one, she left the ballet studio-"It was so much about weight," she says-and started studying with Ilona Kessel, a Baltimore choreographer. "She had a totally different mentality and background," Wender says. "She had much more of a modern base."

Sometimes, on bad days, Wender says, "You have the voice of that ballet teacher in your head, and you can't get it out." But mostly she hears the other voices, the ones that say, "It's really not about how I look, it's about when I perform. People are appreciating me as a dancer, and they see that it has nothing to do with body type."

Wender, 26, came to New York to attend Columbia College and started exploring the city's modern dance scene. At Dance Space Center, she worked with a number of different choreographers while supporting herself as an administrator. One of the people she danced with was Alexandra Beller, who, she says, "made that first big splash for the non-skinny dancers" when she danced with Bill T. Jones.

Clarke created the role of the Belly Dancer on Beller as she workshopped the project. But the Lincoln Center Theater engagement conflicted with one of Beller's choreography commitments. Beller and another acquaintance recommended Wender to Clarke.

Belly dance was not part of Wender's training, and Clarke at first thought it would be a good idea for her to take some classes. "But then," says Wender, "everybody realized it works best in the piece when it's this woman brazenly faking it. So I don't pretend to be any kind of expert. And actually, the dancers at the time didn't know anything about real belly dancing--they were imitating some exoticized, imaginary version."

It took "some growing" she says, before she realized that her attempts at being "artistic" with the belly dance were counterproductive. "I just had to go for it," she says with a laugh. And go for it she does, vamping Povinelli with abandon.

Although she had worked with several choreographers who incorporate dialogue and other theatrical elements into their work, playing the Belly Dancer presented Wender with more of an acting challenge than she was used to. "She's very different from my own personality," she says. 'Tin not as loud with my physical presence. She throws her breasts in people's faces; I'm a lot more subdued."

Wender tackled the problem by concentrating first on just learning the dance steps. "That was second-nature for me," she says. Then she used all her time working on the character. She knew from the start that she would have the topless scene, a rift on the many impressionist images of women bathing at their dressing tables. "I didn't have a problem with it," she says. "I think it's a beautiful scene." But she doesn't minimize its difficulties. "I can see and hear everybody in the audience. I can hear the titters. It's personal, and it's hard the first few times."

The scene, she admits, always feels a little different from the rest of the show, where she's tarty without being naked. But she has no time to dwell on it. When it's over, she dashes offstage with only one thing on her mind: "We have to get our clothes back on fast," she says. "All those layers!"

Sylviane Gold has written about theater for Newsday and The New York Times.
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Title Annotation:On Broadway
Author:Gold, Sylviane
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Dance Review
Date:Feb 1, 2005
Words:857
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