Performance, like life, is fleeting. The vast majority of performance works are presented a handful of times and never appear on stage again. Novels, paintings, sculptures and recorded music can be re-experienced for centuries. What a rare thing it is then, to see a truly great performance, deemed by some as one of the greatest of the 20th century, reproduced in as fresh and striking a production as it was said to have been when it premiered in 1985.
Inspired by Heironymus Bosch’s 1503 painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights, this eponymous work of dance theater by director and choreographer Martha Clarke evokes the rise and fall of humankind. The piece is built with an arcing structure that mirrors Bosch’s use of the triptych. It incorporates music, lighting, aerial dancing, minimal props and the nearly nude bodies of the dancers to evoke our constant struggle with sin and depravity. The work is spare and visually striking, and it possesses a wildness that reaches far beyond an aesthetic.
Clarke’s Garden begins with a group of dancers entering the stage like a pack of feral animals, the visible shifting of their ribcages reminiscent of pencil-thin greyhounds, their shoulder blades and taut muscles conjuring a kinetic energy that seethes in the near silence. The action builds as the dancers move around the stage and interact with one another, evolving into an upright, though largely unsophisticated race. We arrive quickly at the fall of man in a sensual and seemingly simple scene between Adam and Eve, the snake and their famous apple. From there the piece grows and stretches. Dancers, like the figures in Bosch’s overfull painting, take off, flying and spinning overhead in harnesses. The subtle but perfectly matched score by Richard Peaslee increases in complexity with the story, incorporating the dancers’ laughter, cries, breathing and movement into the crackling and organic soundscape.
The inhabitants of Clarke and Bosch’s world are confounding, harsh and exceedingly human. Their interactions range from sublime to murderous, with a bent toward the violent. As the tension grows, the dancers’ quick, powerful movements combine with those of the tree branches and driftwood that serve as props, costumes and noisemakers. Sitting in the audience one feels a genuine sense of fear — one misstep and the whole thing could end in a cacophony of broken limbs and destruction.
Like much medieval art, Garden contains smatterings of bawdy comedy, but the laughter doesn’t last long, as the thwarting/achievement of desires quickly leads to negative emotions. At the high point of the story’s arc, the dancers don ragamuffin costumes that channel the poverty and misery of much of the Middle Ages, playing out the seven deadly sins in murderous and vengeful scenes. From there, the Garden turns downward to Bosch’s final judgment.
The most affecting moment arrives unexpectedly, near the end. As the dancers return to their animal selves, the cellist engages one of the women in a conflict representative of myriad things: art vs. the animal instinct, music vs. the dancer, desire vs. stoicism. Their struggle is every struggle we have with ourselves, with every part of ourselves that we might hope to cast off or deny, but are incapable of eliminating completely.
If you can, you should see this piece. Given the hurdles Clarke faced in remounting the production, it may not see the stage for another 20 years.