If you want to know how many positions at all speeds the young, nude (nearly) human body can take on, including when airborne — think upside-down — see Garden of Earthly Delights. All this and a story, too. The ballet recounts humanity’s path from innocence, to guilt and repression including a vivid auto da fe, to a conclusion in hell, with a glimpse of springtime renewal at the end.
In its tripartite interpretation of existence, the ballet reflects Hieronymus Bosch’s great triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights, painted early in the 16th Century, that hangs on the wall of the Prado Museum in Spain as a pilgrimage destination for art lovers. Several positions of the dancers and their intertwinings, such as the famous sex play with the flowering branch, are drawn specifically from Bosch’s painting. As if with a paint brush, Clarke represents through her dancers the look of wiry nudity that for many makes a Bosch look like a Bosch (though the type was widespread in northern art), in contrast to more voluptuous models of the contemporary Italian Renaissance that western culture has tended to adopt as its ideal.
Mostly, though, Clarke draws more generally from Bosch’s towering level of imagination: taking inspiration from his unparalleled inventiveness of images, surrealistic disjunctions, challenging sexual unions and no-holds barred polymorphic sexuality. The music, performed by musicians in monk’s dress on early instruments and on other instruments that appear in Bosch’s painting, introduces unfamiliar and haunting sounds that interplay with the surreal vision.
Release from gravity is a governing fantasy in this ballet. The performers seem almost nude in their sheer body tights but the lycra neatly slickens the areas of the body that would show gravity’s pull. When their turns come, these young dancers are ready to take off. Water scenes, too, continue the idea of floating. In this focus on buoyancy, Clarke is in strong contrast to Bosch, more Rococo than Northern Renaissance, true to the tradition of ballet.
With all the inventiveness of motifs in Clarke’s Garden, and expertise of production, why does this ballet drag? With each new visual motif, starting with the initial entrance of the dancers in a four-limbed walk that shows off the beauty of their lean backs, as Bosch reveals it, one starts off fascinated, and is soon waiting for what’s next. The Garden only lasts about an hour, but it’s a long hour. Bosch’s painting of The Garden of Earthly Delights has fascinated endlessly, in its individual motifs and as a whole, for the past 500 years. That’s a lot to ask of a contemporary ballet but since Clarke herself emphasizes the connection, one does wonder why her Garden of Earthly Delights, with its serious purpose, skill and inventiveness, is not more compelling.
My tentative answer is that Bosch’s figures, in all their numbers and variety, convey a massive sense of ebullient and unquenchable free will. The opposite is true of Clarke’s ballet. Each individual dance motif, as “shocking” and original as it may seem, runs its path through in an automatic way, so that when one sees the beginning one sees it all, and has to wait until it concludes for a new thought. Artistic design and choreography dominate feeling.
But there’s another aspect to the ballet beyond that hour–its continuation in the imagination. The next day it’s left a gift, a memory of the soaring physical freedom of the very human dancers with which one can identify.
Garden of Earthly Delights is playing at the Minetta Lane Theatre in NYC’s Village, through May 31st.
Nearby restaurant favorite — BellaVitae, 24 Minetta Lane (right next door!)