A woman in a flesh-colored, semi-transparent bodysuit soars out over the audience; as she swings back, her long hair grazes some of the rapt spectators. I never forgot that moment in the 1984 premiere of Martha Clarke’s Garden of Earthly Delights. It’s still mesmerizing in the revival of this most magical of Clarke’s dance-theater creations. Talk about breaching a stage’s fourth wall!
Garden is a rendering of Hieronymus Bosch’s early-16th-century triptych of the same name. The painted side panels depicting Paradise and Hell frame a pastoral landscape in which only horseback riding can compete with joyful copulation of all sorts. Clarke, like Bosch, fills every corner of her canvas with activity, but at times, with savvy theatricality, she narrows our focus. You may miss the man pissing into a bowl, but not the one vomiting into a bucket and then jamming his head into it.
For Bosch, scale creates the illusion of distance, but his visions of increasingly tiny figures and bizarre landscapes climb up the panels’ surfaces and invade the sky. Hence Clarke’s use of flying—its fantasy ironically juxtaposed to the workaday way the 11 stupendous performers help one another into harnesses and haul on the ropes. The three musicians (Wayne Hankin, Egil Rostad, and Arthur Solari) in hooded monks’ robes sit onstage to play Richard Peaslee’s marvel of a score for assorted wind, string, and percussion instruments, interspersed with sounds of the wind or dogs barking. The performers first appear walking with a giraffe’s grace on their hands and tiptoes; later, this peaceful herd escorts Adam and Eve (Whitney V. Hunter and Sophie Bortolussi) out of Eden, after a snake with wild locks and a flickering tongue (Gabrielle Malone) delivers the fatal apple. But even Paradise has another aspect: While the first couple nuzzles gently, two men bring down Marjorie Folkman, and one sinks his teeth into her clothing, ready to drag his prey away.
Clarke’s imaginative erotic play is more formalized than Bosch’s. Men thrust sticks out from between their legs and shake them enticingly to the sound of rattles; women giggle and run away. But in one beautiful passage (made dreamlike by Christopher Akerlind’s superb lighting), the women stand on the slowly rolling men, poling themselves along with branches. And rapture becomes immanent when lovers sail and spin their harnessed partners.
The triptych may not have been the only Bosch work that Clarke looked at. The performers grab from a wheelbarrow various grubby, monochromatic peasant garments. The brilliantly skewed attire by costume designer Jane Greenwood brings to mind the painter’s Haywain, and the robustly savage activities the performers then indulge in are suggested in his Seven Deadly Sins. In Clarke’s view, medieval life compressed to this level competes with the Christian view of hell. One man (Miguel Anaya, substituting for Benjamin G. Bowman) simulates stuffing potato after potato into his mouth, pausing only to fart (a musician contributes the sound effect). Cruelty, rape, theft, and murder are rampant. The performers define themselves as loutish and slovenly. Jenny Sandler might be a proud nun (but she carries a knife). Folkman is a God-besotted simpleton, Daniel Clifton a brute, Jennifer Nugent a tough harridan. Borderline-innocent Isadora Wolfe is killed by Malone but rises to join one of the grimly robust dances. Matt Rivera, the village idiot, is denounced and burned at the stake (someone crackles sticks at his feet, and a machine spews smoke while he writhes in agony). He gets a halo, only to have it snatched off before he flies upward.
Folkman too is victimized, but by then, everyone’s back in “nude” attire, with women flying upside down and the musicians singing “Dies Irae.” In seconds, hellfire is burning red, and Rivera, shrieking, is dragged along by a stick jammed into his eye. Hunter bangs Anaya’s head against a bass drum, and in one agonizing sequence, Malone messes vindictively with Rostad as he attempts to play his cello. Finally, he’s had enough. The roles of victim and tormentor are exchanged, and—in a terrifying bit of fakery—he slowly plunges the stand of his cello into her breast as she lies staring up at him.
Clarke’s viewpoint is not strictly the Christian one. At the end, General McArthur Hambrick—who entered at the piece’s beginning encased in bare branches—appears harnessed and bearing a green bough. Barely off the floor, he leaps in a buoyant circle as the lights dim. Spring is burgeoning, and Hell is a thing of the past.
In Bosch’s paintings, multitudes go about their strange affairs simultaneously. In Clarke’s stunning hour-long fantasy, the same people are constantly falling only to rise again—and rising only to plummet back into life’s tumult.
At villagevoice.com, read Deborah Jowitt on José Limón’s centennial celebration and other events