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Sunday, February 8, 2009

From a Crawl into Flight (Martha Clarke's Garden of Earthly Delights)

Garden of Earthly Delights, conceived, directed and choreographed by Martha Clarke, music by Richard Peaslee / Minetta Lane Theatre, New York City / the performance I saw was a matinee on January 17, 2009

Hieronymus Bosch's sixteenth century triptych of paradise, earthly delights, and hell is the source of Martha Clarke's dance performance first presented in New York in 1984 and revived in 1987 at the same theater in which I saw it this year, at the high-ceilinged Minetta Lane Theatre.

Clarke's work however is only tangentially related to the Bosch painting, since its rich reds, greens, and blues are replaced in the performance with various shades of white and brown; only the sheer body stockings worn by the dancers, lending it a pinkish-like glow.

And while Bosch presents us with three versions of what delight might signify: the paradisiacal serenity before the fall, the lusty play and abuse of the earthly world, and the dark and sadistic tortures of Hell, Clarke's work is more clearly inspired by a Puritan-like vision of reality, as she explores, through body and motion, mankind's transformation from animal being to gluttony, greed, lust, torture, war, and death.

One of the most lovely moments in a hour of many wondrous scenes occurs at the very beginning of the work, as the eleven dancers gracefully move forward on fingers and toes, a species not yet fully able or willing to stand erect. Yet soon, bearing branches in ritualistic gestures they come together as humans, in pairs and in small groupings, that predicts the inevitable fall from grace, Eve biting the apple and Adam both as the snake sensuously writhes between them.

From the beginning of this revelation of flesh, I wished that Clarke had allowed her dancers to perform naked instead of being ensconced in the sickly flesh-colored body stockings that wipe out all but the general shapes of their handsome bodies. I say this out of no prurient interests—dozens of Broadway musicals and plays these days feature nudity—but am simply suggesting that the appearance of dancers such as Sophie Bortolussi, Daniel Clifton, General McArthur Hambrick, and Whitney A. Hunter seems an occasion to truly witness the delights of human flesh.

In the second "triptych," the revelers have truly found "society," and are now dressed in Medieval peasant garb, one festooned in a codpiece. Accordingly it is the earthly garden itself where Clarke most clearly explores both the pleasures and abuses of human sexuality. Here too she represents the "potato eaters," as a man seemingly swallows dozens of potatoes before vomiting up his dinner.

Some figures gracefully dance while others begin to copulate. Priests (played by the musicians of Richard Peaslee's haunting score) attempt to control the various disruptions, including a few individuals who have suddenly gone aerial, flying in and out of the stage frame through pulleys and ropes. However, their attempt at order ultimately results in even greater torture—represented as the Inquisition—of these free-spirited souls, eventually chaos breaking out.
In the final hellish spectacle almost all dancers—again sporty bodytights—take to the ropes, spinning almost out of control over the audience, tumbling head over heels high above us, who have become almost voyeurs of the human hell to which we are witness. It is terrifying—and liberating.

By the work's end, we realize what miserable beasts our species has turned out to be, how spirituality and ritual have been converted into warfare and other acts of hate. As the audience turned to go, a woman in front of me commented: "Not a very encouraging portrait of our kind, is it?"

Perhaps not. But what other earthly creature could take their bodies from a virtual crawl into flight?

Los Angeles, February 5, 2009

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