New York City Theater
"Garden of Earthly Delights"
Minetta Lane Theatre, Manhattan
“Garden of Earthly Delights,” now at the Minetta Lane Theatre, is an extraordinary piece. Billed as a dance-drama, the term hardly does justice to what takes place on stage and how it impacts on the viewer. Martha Clark, who originally conceived, choreographed and directed “Delights” in 1984, now brings it back to the Minetta in all its power.
Like the 1503 Hieronymous Bosch painting (a tryptich, to be exact) on which it is based, Clarke’s show deals with Heaven, Hell, and everything between. In short, it is an abbreviated history of mankind, played out in three separate time frames—Paradise, the Middle Ages, and Hell.
For the viewer, seated close to the stage in the intimate Minetta theater, it becomes a devastating and deeply personal experience. One is caught up in the action from the moment the seemingly naked dancers (in flesh-colored body suits) slither across the stage. It is chilling to watch these half-human creatures move slowly on all fours, as it were, as they invade a primeval world. The first signs of life are oozing from the depths.
But soon Clarke’s world moves on to Biblical times—to Paradise (or at least Clarke’s version of Paradise). It is a time of joy, frisky encounters, and innocent sexual couplings. Clarke’s eleven-dancer cast is superb, with its work well underscored by Richard Peaslee’s offbeat, edgy music. Four musicians play a variety of traditional and unusual instruments, which adds to the atmosphere.
When next the dancers don nondescript medieval clothing, the story moves into the Middle Ages—an era, it would seem, inhabited by people of incredible coarseness and bestiality (saved, to some degree, by the Church). Watching characters openly give in to every basic physical need—and to enact the seven deadly sins--is acutely embarrassing to the viewer.
But worse (and better) is yet to come, as the company descends into hell. Suddenly the lighting takes on a reddish glow, and bodies again are naked. Again, every human evil is on display, but stepped up to new heights and dominated by violence. Literally new heights, as dancers swing from above and out into the audience.
In all, one leaves the theater emotionally wrung out, but elated by performances, music, and Martha Clarke’s imaginative concept.
Dec. 18, 2008