With her flying demons, simulated onstage sex and incisive use of movement, text and music, Martha Clarke was once considered a brilliant, daring creative force. In category-defying dance-theater productions, she took on Heaven and Hell and the miracle of love and the fall of an empire.

Then--essentially--she flunked out of the avant-garde.

After her final, colossal failure, the one involving the elephant, you didn't hear much about Clarke. Now, after years of personal and artistic pain, she is making a critically acclaimed return, with five pieces that capture the beauty and bleakness of Anton Chekhov's short stories. Her performance opens Thursday at the Kennedy Center.

Clarke recalls a line Chekhov pinned on one of his characters: "Schooled by bitter experience."

She laughs a loud, throaty laugh.

"That could be my epitaph!"

Nearly 30 years ago Martha Clarke helped found Pilobolus, one of the most original and popular American dance troupes of the past 50 years. It was part science project, part circus acrobatics, with sly humor, optical illusions and upturned bottoms thrown in. From there she went on to create elaborate multimedia productions such as "The Garden of Earthly Delights," based on the mortal excesses and divine retribution depicted by 16th-century painter Hieronymus Bosch.

Then came an empire's fading grandeur lustrously depicted in "Vienna: Lusthaus" (both it and "Garden" were performed in Washington in the late '80s). The native of Pikesville, a Baltimore suburb, became the toast of the art world. Audiences howled over her bawdy humor. Critics raved about her fearless imagination, fierce nonconformity and seamless collaborations with musicians and designers.

Until she went too far. "Miracolo d'Amore," which premiered in 1988, was faulted for its images of sexual cruelty and conceptual confusion. But it was "Endangered Species," produced two years later at a cost of $800,000, that unleashed the critical brickbats. The piece included an elephant named Flora and a couple of horses. The New Republic assailed it for "sadly lacking in tone and musculature."

"Complacent pretension" was how Frank Rich described the show in the New York Times. "In 'Endangered Species,' the animal sideshows can be cute and the big top is striking," he continued, "but for all the transcendental huffing and puffing in the center ring, I could not find anyone there."

The reaction was so severe that the production was yanked early from its run at that temple of the experimental, the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

"One of the problems was I bit off more than I could chew," Clarke acknowledges now. "Conceptually, there was too much message."

The message, however, was heartfelt. "Endangered Species" grew out of Clarke's passion for animals--she still has one of the horses, which she rides at her country home in Connecticut on the weekends. She was aiming to draw on the irony of animal gentleness and human cruelty.

"What we attempted to say became portentous and overbearing," she says, "but the spirit was really quite lovely."

The criticism wounded her deeply.

What's it like to fall that far that fast?

"How does it feel when you have a root canal?" she offers with a dry chuckle. "It was a bad experience. It was painful."

The truth is, however, that even when she was being newly discovered as a miracle-working maverick, she wasn't completely at ease.

"I went through eight or 10 years of being in incredible psychic pain all the time when I was working," Clarke says. "It was nearly always terrifying." Her marriage to an artist had collapsed years before. Then she suffered through a turbulent love affair. When "Endangered Species" flopped, it began to feel as if everything was unraveling.

Clarke jokes about the quiet that followed the closing of the show: "There was nothing to distract me from my mission."

Still wedded to the theater, she eventually accepted offers to direct opera in Europe. Being freed from the responsibility of creating a production from scratch "was a relief."

"It's about surviving," she says of her determination to keep working. "There are disappointments and little joys and sorrows along the way, but with battering and age you become philosophical about it. A lot of great work gets shot down; Bizet died after hearing 'Carmen' ridiculed.

"I'm not saying all my works have been great, but there is comfort in the fact that criticism is not always right," Clarke continues, "and it can't take away the value of the experience."

In time, Clarke grew frustrated with opera and the lack of time to work on the details, an aspect she had always cherished. Eventually, she decided "there had been enough healing." It was time to risk another full-length production--which she did in 1995 with the appropriately titled "An Uncertain Hour." Clarke created on a small scale, using dancers from Netherlands Dance Theater 3, a group of older performers.

Witness the new, streamlined Clarke. No text, no swings, no nudity, no elephants. One could even say she's veering away from choreography. Her new Chekhov-inspired work, "Vers la Flamme," opens the Kennedy Center's America Dancing series at the Eisenhower Theater and runs through Saturday. It reveals a more restrained, mature artist, though her eye for detail is as sharp as ever.

In one segment, a man sweeps his ravishing young paramour about the room as lightly as if she were a silk shawl. They embrace rapturously--then suddenly the man tires of her, shoves her away. The woman slams against the wall, melts in shock to the floor and rolls beseechingly at his feet, even as he kicks her away.

"That really destructive nature: It's all stuff I've lived," says Clarke with an acid smile.

Rediscovering Herself

Martha Clarke looks younger than her 55 years, with a sharp face dusted with freckles and framed by short, unruly chestnut hair. Sitting in her airy, sunlit apartment, feet propped up in front of her and frequently breaking into husky laughter, she seems far removed from the grim self-doubt that put a choke hold on her career.

But it is precisely because of that slump that Chekhov--with his focus on the disappointments and losses in life--resonates so deeply within her.

"You choose subjects that you feel illuminate yourself to yourself," Clarke says. Chekhov "feels like a nice greenhouse to be in."

It's a natural fit. Clarke is an avowed romantic; Chekhov, a country doctor as well as a prolific short-story writer and playwright, died young of tuberculosis. Only three years before, after a string of unhappy liaisons, he had married the love of his life. The works he left behind, however, are unclouded by sentimentality. Though deceptively simple, they are concerned with the difficult truths underlying ordinary human relationships.

In keeping with the author's uncluttered narrative style, "Vers la Flamme," based on Chekhov's "The Lady With the Lapdog," "Enemies," "The Darling," "The Grasshopper" and "A Nervous Breakdown," is a strikingly minimalist production. The seven dancers (and one of Clarke's own Pomeranians) are accompanied by an onstage pianist who ripples through scores by Alexander Scriabin. (The title, which means "toward the flame," is drawn from a Scriabin score included near the end of the hour-long work.) The set is a sparely furnished room painted with a cloud-strewn sky.

The gist of the narrative is told with a silky economy: a yearning look, a tentatively extended hand, a body pinned to the wall in profound, wide-eyed mortification. There are few moments you could fairly call "dance," though only seasoned dancers could invest such small gestures with emotional depth.

Clarke calls it an "impressionistic" representation. "You can't really translate literature into just physicality," she says. That's why she chose Chekhov over, say, the more structurally complex Tolstoy or Dostoevski. "People speak of a Chekhovian atmosphere, and they usually mean repressed, with those attenuated, ambiguous endings. With Chekhov you get fragrance and nuance. The actual narrative is less important to the stories than the atmosphere."

It seems like a sharp departure from Clarke's flamboyant past, but in fact "Vers la Flamme" is a return to Clarke's beginnings. While a student at the Juilliard School's dance department, she trained with choreographers Antony Tudor and Anna Sokolow, both masters of gestural simplicity and psychological depth.

You could say Clarke was destined for a dancing life--she was named after modern dance pioneer Martha Graham. She attended Pikesville's private Park School, but what was most important to her German Jewish family was the arts. Clarke's father was a jazz pianist before becoming an attorney. Among Clarke's earliest memories is watching "The Lone Ranger" on TV while listening to Schubert drifting in from her grandfather's drawing room, where he hosted weekly string quartets. Clarke studied art at the Baltimore Museum of Art and dance at the Peabody Conservatory of Music.

At Juilliard, she gravitated to Tudor, known for his searing ballet works, and Sokolow, for her anxious modern dance creations. "One was a classicist, one an expressionist, but both drew on the importance of the inner life, and beautiful movement, musicality and emotional gestures," Clarke says.

"What has kept me from having a dance company and really developing a technique is that I have this curiosity and perverse desire to try things that maybe don't fit sometimes," she says. "And I just open the door and do it. And if I don't like it I never need to go back."

"Flamme" involved months of trial and error.

"We arrived at that pared-down stuff by dancing our little butts off for months on end," says Paola Styron, a veteran of such Clarke creations as "Garden" and "Vienna." "We'd improvise for hours and then reduce it down. And we'd mourn the lost parts, just mountains of them. It's like the whole center of the watermelon is gone.

"It's very courageous for her to be that naked, to say, 'I trust that this walk is enough here,' " Styron says. " 'We don't need to put any embellishment in.' She trusts her gut."

The Chekhov, it seems, was an important grounding mechanism for Clarke. Meeting with generally favorable reviews during its New York run last month, it has given Clarke confidence to return to large-scale extravaganzas. Her next project: choreographing and directing her first Broadway musical, an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales, set to open in the spring. (Clarke promises that it won't be purely a children's production, that it, too, will have its dark side.)

Simplifying Life

Heading to the theater for rehearsals, Clarke pulls on a jacket matted with dog hair, snaps leashes on her pooches Sofie and Pie and stuffs a couple of rawhide chews in her tote bag. Trailing the dogs, she hurries up the block to her car--she's forced to drive around town, she says, because cabs won't take dogs, and wherever she goes, the dogs go.

On the way to the car, Sofie takes a bathroom break. Clarke roots around in the pocket of her jeans and pulls out a plastic bag. She scoops up the dog in one hand, the steaming stool in the other, and strides off in search of a trash can. "It's like having children," she calls over her shoulder. "They keep you grounded."

As she steers her Volkswagen into traffic, with Sofie dozing across her hips and Pie in the back seat, Clarke reflects on the newly found calm in her life.

"In those early years where you're discovered and there's so much momentum behind you, you begin to get terrified that you can't keep yourself buoyant like that. Now my son has grown up"--he's 31 and a pianist--"and I'm leading a life that's about the pleasures of my creatures and my work, and my personal life is less complicated."

The lady with the lap dogs noses onto Eighth Avenue.

"My life is simpler," she says.