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    Garden of Earthly Delights
    Photo by Richard Finkelstein

    Painting Come to Life

    Martha Clarke's Garden of Earthly Delight channels a Bosch painting


    In the opening moments of Martha Clarke's Garden of Earthly Delights, the dancers crawl onto the stage like long-limbed, naked animals, a kind of creature not previously imagined. The Hieronymus Bosch triptych that inspired this scene, painted in the early years of the sixteenth century, has obsessed generations of art fans, partly because it's so mesmeric that you feel inescapably drawn inside it. You could spend years just staring at it. (The writer Terry Tempest Williams went to Madrid and did just that — it's the subject of her book, Leap.) Part of what makes the painting so enticing is that Bosch renders Hell and sin as enthusiastically as Paradise. It's a voyeur's daydream, teeming with shocking and dazzling images. The characters, in all of their variety, seem to be at the mercy of gods and demons, forced into pain and pleasure beyond their control.

    Choreography by: Martha Clarke.
    Dancers: Sophie Bortolussi, Benjamin G. Bowman, Daniel Clifton, Marjorie Folkman, General McArthur Hambrick, Whitney V. Hunter, Gabrielle Malone, Jennifer Nugent, Matt Rivera, Jenny Sandler and Isadora Wolfe.
    Musicians: Wayne Hankin, Egil Rostad and Arthur Solari.
    Music by: Richard Peaslee.
    Costumes by: Jane Greenwood.
    Lighting design by: Christopher Akerlind.
    Production stage manager: Jennifer Rae Moore.
    Flying: David Hale.

    Related links: show site
    Minetta Lane Theater
    through March 1, 2009

    Clarke's Garden, first staged in the 1980s, captures the painting's thrilling and complicated atmosphere. Each dancer in the current production now in an extended run at the Minetta Lane Theater has a unique charisma, and as an ensemble they seem as possessed by the painting, as much at its mercy, as the denizens of Bosch's original oil. Their movements are inventive, transformational, and, finally, terrifying — they are strapped into harnesses and swung and spun up to the ceiling, twirling so fast that any normal mortal would vomit or faint. (One dancer does vomit early on, purposely, in the "gluttony" scene. There are also scenes of urination, defecation, all varieties of twisted sex, and, finally, torture.) Their lithe, acrobatic beauty is so powerful that, while the performances shock, it is easy to forget just how challenging and demanding these movements really are.

    Jane Greenwood's costumes are a triumph. The sheer, flesh-colored bodysuits on the dancers make them look exactly like Bosch's figures. Also, they somehow look more naked than they would if they were truly unclothed. Their bodies take on an otherworldly quality, as if they've been peeled and exposed to an unfamiliar light. In one scene, they don rustic, medieval garb. Some become monks or nuns. One becomes a convincing Village Idiot. The monkish musicians are a part of each scene. The music is so integrated, in fact, that in Hell one dancer gives another a brutal beating with a drum. The skilled musicians are part of the dance.

    The set is spare compared to the explosion of color in Bosch's triptych. It's the action of the dancers and musicians, and their striking expression of human variety, that creates the richness of this Garden. As in Bosch, the emotions in this production are real. There's humor, irony, vulnerability, and fear. Despite the fast pace, it's probably not a great show for little kids (unless you're trying to give them lifelong nightmares.) And, despite the careful craft and dedication that informs the dance, it's also wrong for anyone prone to heart attacks or seizures. Watching the dancers fly overhead like furious valkyries will send a physical tremor through the body of even the most jaded viewer. For anyone else, it's a riveting excursion into Bosch's world.

    JANUARY 7, 2009

    Reader comments on Garden of Earthly Delights:

  • fantastic   from mun, Jun 30, 2009

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