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Hieronymus Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights — Compagnie Marie Chouinard (Review)

Photo by Nicolas Ruel

Hieronymus Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights — Compagnie Marie Chouinard

March 15 and 16, Vancouver Playhouse, Dance House Season

By Alex Lazaridis F.

Quebec dance icon Marie Chouinard returned to the Vancouver Playhouse last week with Hieronymus Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights. For those unfamiliar with the artist and painting the show is named after, it’s a truly weird specimen from the European Canon.

Part of the central panel of Bosch's triptych.

Painted sometime between 1490-1510 the oil-on-oak triptych is usually read from left to right, with the Garden of Eden on the left, the populated Earth in the middle, and Hell on the right. At the beginning of the performance this image is presented on a huge upstage projection screen. We zoom in to the central panel which reveals a grassy world populated by humans, animals, gourd-like architectural structures, insects, and creatures that are hybrids of all of the above. Details from the painting are also shown on smaller circular screens, downstage left and right. Ten mostly ballet-trained dancers assume poses that recreate the figures in these extracts. In one way it’s a very simple exercise: the video zooms in on a detail, the dancers assume the body postures of the figures in the image, and then, with this posture as the starting point, they dance until a new detail is introduced.

Act 1

The work, like the triptych, is divided into three acts. Triptychs from the era are traditionally read from left to right, but Chouinard makes the first act about the large central panel. In this act there were two moments that really stood out for me. The first was when the dancers became the legs of a centipede-like creature (drawn, as always, from an image in the painting) and scuttled across the stage. The second came at the end of the act when the dancers entered an inflated, pumpkin-shaped, clear plastic tent. All ten got into the structure and bounced up and down, exhaling and inhaling, while the stage went to black.

Aside from this I found the first act to be something of a celebration of well-trained, very skillful, very muscular, and very slim dancers—something I see a little too much of these days. There is a monotonous sameness to the dancers regardless of their gender. I appreciate the technique but crave greater variety of embodied experience, including the variety that comes from different kinds of training, and yes, the variety that comes from performers that aren’t all (or almost all) of European background. There’s a lack of diversity on stage that makes the whole thing feel monologic: one voice, one way of inhabiting a body, one unspoken ideology inscribed in the flesh.

And it all feels a bit tame, very pastoral, like aspects of the painting. The act ends. The audience claps. I’m hoping for something more. And… I get more.

Act 2

When the lights return for Act 2, a dancer is revealed standing on two plastic bins, tossing her head and hair (from a newly acquired wig) as she growls and howls into a microphone. The howling is processed at a high volume and distorted into something that feels demonic. I feel a sense of terror. The stage is littered with seemingly random objects: a tall ladder, a foam house-like structure and other paraphernalia. The vibrant pastoral colours of the previous scene are replaced by a more monochromatic palette of greys. In this act Chouinard has moved on to Hieronymus Bosch’s right panel—Hell. The scene here is one of a chaos in which giant human ears are cut through with a giant knife, a city burns, and humans are tortured, eaten or enslaved by impassive demons.

A section of the right panel.

As was characteristic of the center panel, here there is a deliberate blurring at times of the line where the human ends and the insect, animal, or object begins. Chouinard tries to capture some of this, particularly when a large, grey, stiffened fabric wrapped around a dancer and extending horizontally into space makes an appearance (costumes are by Chouinard). The dancer is reduced to just an arm and the lower part of two legs. Prior to this I had been thinking that Chouinard had lost her edge, but now she drives at the audience with intense sound (designed by composer Louis Dufort) and sustained on-stage chaos.

The terror wears off after a while but the scene continues, giving over to boredom. Maybe the intent is to transform terror into banality. This would be in keeping with the strange lack of expression on the faces of most of the figures in the painting. The people, animals, and demons seem to undertake their tasks and suffer their tortures impassively.

Act 3

Between Act 1 and 2 Chouinard moved from center to right panel, and for the final act she travels back to the left, the beginning panel in which God introduces Eve to Adam in a serene depiction of the Garden of Eden. God stands with his right hand raised in blessing, while his left rests upon Eve’s upturned wrist. Adam sits on the grass to God’s right, his feet touching the divine being’s robe.

The dancers, as in Act 1, replicate this three-figure tableau. More dancers arrive multiplying the Eves and the Adams, a logical result of the joining of this “original” heterosexual couple. The tableau itself multiplies so that in other locations there is another God and other Eves and Adams. Genders are freely mixed among emerging couples. Sometimes an individual breaks out of a tableau into one of Chouinard’s trademark dance moves: a sort of twirling but erratic explosion, one that is just shy of true spontaneous action, as the dancer remains constrained within the anti-gravitational, limb extended, ballet body (an exception to this is Catherine Dagenais-Savard who is consistently able to find personal expression within the form).

It seems that by travelling from center to right to left panel, rather than the usual left-to-right in which Hell becomes the dire consequence of sinful human action, Chouinard rejects the unhappy ending of Biblical revelation and instead creates a new gender fluid Garden of Eden.

Detail from the right panel.

A side note: When researching the painting I came across a great variety of interpretations by art critics. The truth is no one really knows what Bosch was thinking when he made the painting. While triptychs were normally crafted around religious themes and intended for moral instruction, The Garden of Earthly Delights was discovered in a private collection. Despite the apparent biblical themes it looks to my non-expert eye like 15th century porn created for the private viewing of a wealthy patron. The central and right panel offer many examples of fetishistic and sado-masochistic acts. These have been justified as allegories of sin. But I don’t know. It seems convenient that the panels can be closed to hide the graphic subject matter—something done perhaps in polite company? Finally an reading of the painting as an erotic pleasure garden would be in keeping with Marie Chouinard’s body of work. Her emphasis has always been the sexualized body, not Christian morality.

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