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Martha Clarke’s ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’BY: Robert Zaller 10.25.2009
Last winter’s revival of Martha Clarke’s dance theater masterwork, Garden of Earthly Delights, freely adapted from Hieronymus Bosch’s Renaissance triptych, was a work of astonishing beauty and rare erotic candor in its revival production, the first in more than 20 years.
Garden of Earthly Delights. Choreography by Martha Clarke. November 2008-January 2009 at Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane, New York. (212) 307-4100 or gardenofearthlydelightsnyc.com.
One hour with Hieronymus BoschROBERT ZALLER
Look, if you will, at medieval representations of heaven. You’ll see ranks of saints and angels around the divine throne, wings at parade attention and haloes carefully burnished. It’s all properly blissful (if a bit military), but there doesn’t seem much joy in it, still less fun. Hell is a more happening place, but the demons get all the kicks, and the damned look as though they’d rather be anywhere else— even heaven.
This was the Christian afterlife, circa Dante— and, well, what can you say about the beyond in general?
Personally, I’d just as soon stay put on the green imperfect earth, but that would have been serious heresy in days gone by. Look at the pious donors in the corners of early Renaissance paintings, pining to crash the pearly gates the way arrivistes long to get into the right country club, knowing in advance that they’ll be bored to, um, death. These poor sinners had no fun even on earth.
It was into this impossibly stuffy atmosphere that the Flemish painter Hieronymus Bosch burst with his notorious triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights, painted around the turn of the 16th Century. The Garden of Eden and the bottomless pit occupy the left and right wings, respectively, but the large central panel, from which the picture as a whole takes its name, is an earthly utopia in which male and female nudes frolic together, disappear into fantastic towers, tents and shells, and ride exotic and sometimes grotesquely proportioned animals bareback in a lush pastoral landscape. If it weren’t for the minatory scene to which the eye is led on the right panel, with those same happy nudes being variously skewered and devoured against the backdrop of a burning city, this would seem the place to be.
What’s really radical in Bosch’s painting, however, isn’t the fantastic shapes and fauna or the polymorphous-perverse sexuality, but the way in which Bosch bends and melds the standard medieval triad of heaven-earth-hell into something a good deal more fluid and ambivalent.
Each of the panels contains elements taken from the others; none is truly a distinct and separate realm. Not very long after Bosch, a religious group calling itself the Family of Love took the point that the kingdom of God was within all men and women, and from that notion it was a short journey to the notion that the kingdom of Satan was there as well. But in the pleasure domes and torture chambers of The Garden of Earthly Delights, Bosch had it all figured out from the beginning.
Putting a painting onstage
A quarter-century ago, the celebrated choreographer Martha Clarke conceived the idea of taking Bosch’s painting off the wall and putting it onstage. Her Garden of Earthly Delights was a landmark event of late-20th-Century dance theater in its St. Clement’s production in 1984 as well as its revival three years later at the Minetta Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village. As it wasn’t quite ballet, and Richard Peaselee’s quirky music wasn’t quite a score— the musicians, cowled as monks, participate in the proceedings— no dance or drama company took Clarke’s work under its wing, and it remained unperformed for 20 years.
The show’s triumphant revival in the fall of 2008 is a saga in itself, which, as chronicled by Patricia Cohen in the New York Times, is a commentary on the precariousness of the arts in our Mammon-worshiping culture in general, and the desperation of the present economic moment in particular. Suffice it to say that the entire project was on the point of collapse, was rescued at the last possible instant, and guy-wired down to its premiere on November 19. Charles Isherwood loved it in his Times review (“without doubt one of the most eerily hypnotic spectacles of flesh in motion ever put on a New York stage”), and last season’s most improbable success was launched.
Our sensual world
Isherwood doesn’t overstate the case. Clarke rethought the show for this production and, although I didn’t see it in its former incarnation, it was thoroughly a work for our moment. From the tentative, amorous explorations of its early scenes to the frank, ecstatic carnality of the middle sections and the turn toward frenzy— paradise turning first into a medieval kermesse, and then a nightmare of savagery and violence— Clarke explores the full range and connotation of Bosch’s masterwork, which is to say our sensual world.
At an uninterrupted 75 minutes, she is able to dissolve the walls of Bosch’s frames and create in movement the fluidity and interpenetration that’s implicit in his great composition. Using only minimal props— a thyrsus-like band of branches scavenged from Clarke’s own garden, and the performers themselves making shelters and grottoes of their bodies— all is said in thrust and swirl, as one moment of astonishing beauty succeeds the next.
Even the crudest representation of bodily functions— eructation, excretion— has its place in the dynamic whole; even the most terrible— hoisted bodies, rotating like blocks of meat in a butcher’s freezer— fascinate as they appall.
Genuine erotic candor— what we do to and with our bodies— is rare in the arts (pornography may be said to be its opposite). Clarke’s Garden of Earthly Delights achieves it in every register, from the sublime and ecstatic to the harrowing and grotesque. Bosch, I think, would be very pleased.
Clarke had hoped to get four performances out of the current production; instead it got a two-month run. After that? Here’s hoping someone will make a film record. A tour would be very nice, too. Theater, always, is lightning in a bottle. We must catch it while we can.
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