“Garden of Earthly Delights” a sensual dance history of human failings

By Lucy Komisar

A revival of this impressive dance-theater piece first presented in 1984, is a powerful, sensual, emotional evocation of man‘s trajectory from heaven to hell, from the innocence of joy to repression and brutality.


The eleven dancers of the company are notably talented, able to bend their bodies to gracefully walk doubled over as animals or pre-humans in the scene of origins, to move and twist with grace, to fly upside-down on wires, to present faces as expressive as their bodies as they show the pinched and frightened visages of people under repression. It’s a performance you will not forget.

Clarke’s work is inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s tryptic The Garden of Earthly Delights painted by the Dutch master in 1503-4 and now in the Museo del Prado in Madrid. Its biblical and heretical scenes present the history of mankind according to medieval Christian doctrine.

Clarke’s interpretation is powerful, making one feel first and joy and then the pain and horror she depicts. At the start, you see the chamber musicians in


brown capuchin hooded robes; there is the sound of wind and dogs barking. Figures move dragging tree branches or bent over on all fours. They wear flesh colored body stockings that represent both innocence and eroticism, as they clearly show the women’s breasts.

The dancers have bodies with the power and suppleness to do whatever she demands of them. They hold, lift, twist, the women wrapped around partners: this is the beginning of life. Men prance with dildos clattering. The women grab them and laugh.

Then comes the religious repression: tree branches are used as whips, a man has his head covered with a sack, a figure trembles as twigs are broken at his feet to be tinder for a burning at the stake. The dancers pull on crude muslin garments


to cover their nakedness. Their faces show desperation, sadness. They struggle for potatoes and then gorge themselves. They interact with hostility, cruelty. Sex is now threatening, violent.

The dead fly upside-down, floating in space. Chimes ring out to represent their departing souls. They end up in a cackling screaming hell, depicted in scenes of brutality, such as a man’s head banged repeatedly against a drum. The cello is bleating, mournful.

Dance and theater are seamless in Martha Clarke’s stunning production.

“Garden of Earthly Delights.” Conceived, choreographed and directed by Martha Clarke. Music by Richard Peaslee. Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane between Sixth Ave and MacDougal. 212-307-4100. Opened November 19, 2008, closes March 1, 2009. Reviewed by Lucy Komisar January 29, 2009. http://www.gardenofearthlydelightsnyc.com/

Review on NY Theatre-Wire site.

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