Nearly 25 years after dazzling auds with her theatrical dance piece “Garden of Earthly Delights,” director-choreographer Martha Clarke returns to her seminal vision of the 16th century allegorical painting by Hieronymus Bosch, in performance for a limited engagement at the same Off Broadway house where it first ran. When she first synthesized the disciplines of dance, theater, music and painting, Clarke created a new language — intense, erotic and unnerving — that’s still an inspiration for performance theater companies and a special thrill for auds famished for visual beauty.
Keeping to the structure of Bosch’s famous triptych, the piece advances from the earthly paradise of Eden through brutish aspects of life on Earth during the Middle Ages and, after an unsettling season in hell, reaches for the redemption of mankind in heaven.
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Woodwinds and cello, with a good dose of percussion, are sufficient expression for this wordless piece. As performed by onstage musicians garbed as medieval monks and filtered through One Dream’s otherworldly sound design, Richard Peaslee’s eerie music sounds as if it has been lifted from the earth itself — a haunting symphony of whistling winds and stone scratchings and hard rains pounding on bare ground.
The first movement of Clarke’s choreographic design is surely the most startling. With dancers clad (by Jane Greenwood) in fleshtone tights and walking on all fours, humanity initially presents itself as graceless, shapeless beasts. Gradually, two figures — Adam and Eve — detach themselves from this naked herd, distinguishing themselves by standing upright and discovering sex.
Despite succumbing to original sin, mankind does manage to elevate itself, both figuratively and literally, in a series of gorgeously executed flying maneuvers. (Nice note: The production is dedicated to the late flymaster Peter Foy.) But with their pale, lithe bodies dangling close to the ground and their long hair swinging beneath them, these early flyers appear more vulnerable than free.
Clarke is both playful and erotic in staging the central panel of Bosch’s triptych, with its scenes of the worldly paradise that is life on Earth.
Before long, though, she covers the innocent revelers in drab homespun, drains them of all intelligence and leaves them stranded in medieval ignorance and superstition. With Peaslee’s agitated music sounding the only warning, the sexy games and silly jokes turn dark and are eventually transformed into violent scenes of rape and murder.
Punishment for these sins follows, with tormented dancers turned into whirling gyres, spinning dangerously in the air. And strange to say, when one of these suffering souls eventually takes flight and ascends — presumably to a higher plane of existence — we, too, are elevated.