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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Independent Review: Martha Clarke's "Garden of Earthly Delights"

Posted by on Wed, Jun 13, 2007 at 4:19 PM

Torn from the pages of today's Independent Weekly: critic Byron Woods' analysis of Martha Clarke's Garden of Earthly Delights. Read on—and respond with your comments at the end...

Rise and Fall

Martha Clarke opens ADF with a new Garden of Earthly Delights

by Byron Woods

When the moving revival of Martha Clarke’s Garden of Earthly Delights (whose work-in-progress opened the 2007 American Dance Festival last weekend) plays Boston, Minneapolis, New York or any of the other cities where presenters have expressed interest in the work, there’s an experiment I’d like to perform.

Somehow I’d like to take a group of people to see it without revealing the title of the work. Afterward, I’d ask them, “What do you think the name of this piece is? What is it about?”

For if the delicious, languid movement of a herd of impossibly long-legged animals opening the work truly does allude to some National Geographic video, as Clarke suggested in our interview (full text: here, on our ADF blog), the sequences that follow appear just as easily to convey at points the thoughts of Darwin, Durant or Brownowski as the content of Hieronymus Bosch’s surreal masterpiece from the dawn of the 1500s.

Even if, as Clarke noted in our interview, time and sequence are in for a free-for-all whenever a painting is interpreted on stage, this expanded revision of the 1984 dance theater classic clearly tells a story. Call it the ascent and descent of mankind; here, a very short rise followed by a precipitous fall—one, apparently, that is still well underway.

For out of the mating and the feeding of the peaceful, opening herd, dancers Whitney Hunter and Sophie Bortolussi evolve into a suggestion of a human aboriginal couple: Adam, meet Eve. But in conveying more sensuality—and sexuality—between the two than in Clarke’s 1984 version, this time the pair also demonstrates a lot less curiosity about the world around them—particularly on Adam’s part.

And even if the famous temptation, long pegged as the cause of fall of man, takes longer in this iteration, with more seduction woven into Gabrielle Malone’s decanting of the fateful fruit, ultimately our attention is drawn to the decided brevity of our time in Eden when compared with all which follows.

Is happiness on stage, as Clarke claimed in our interview, really so bland a subject as to justify such treatment? We must remember to ask Paul Taylor, the creator of such idylls as Arden Court and Esplanade, that question later on this season. In the mean time, particularly given the grotesque detail put into the hellish visions here, Paradise comes off, if anything, even more shortchanged, and relatively unexplored by comparison.

One of the fundamental challenges any adaptation of Bosch faces involves the degree of phantasmagoria in his work. Weird chimeras fill the landscapes of his Garden and Hell—amalgamations of human, animal, and apparently vegetable, on a plane where perspective is challenged and repeatedly falls.

The only special effect this work utilizes is flight; the transporting of dancers above and across stage using a system of harnesses, ropes and human counterweights. In this revised work, Clarke seems to overuse this device when Hunter lunges one or two times too many out over the heads of the audience. The enigma of limbo—the undesired cure for gravity—is disclosed after a bewildering escape, when a man beset upon by a mob spins off-planet. Tellingly, elevation does not equal transcendence in Clarke’s or Bosch’s worlds.

But aside from flight, no other digital or analog effects are used to represent the eccentricities of this place, with the exception of one dancer who briefly wears a mask—seemingly fashioned from a tree trunk—to embody a slow-moving, bovine creature twice during the performance.

Cunningly, though, much of the fantastic in Bosch’s world comes to us through choreographer Richard Peaslee and musicians Wayne Hankin, Egil Rostad and Arthur Solari’s audio phantasmagoria of thunder sheets and early instruments. The erratic flight of creatures who are decidedly not angels is conveyed as much through the jagged trillings of Hankin’s penny whistle—and the other 20-odd instruments he plays in each performance. As much as we see the terrible awkwardness of human creatures after the fall, we hear it just as clearly.

(Indeed, the seamlessness of Peaslee’s soundtrack makes up for the abruptness in some of Clarke’s blackouts and segues, which would likely come off as far more jagged without it.)

It’s actually small wonder when, at the end of the work, Malone’s desperate, banished character does everything in her power to stop Rostad’s reiteration of the song of Eden from the beginning on his cello. The music has such power to recall a better place that it simply must be stopped. The sexually violent moment which followed her success had the audience gasp, as it did 23 summers before.

As the “Dies Irae” tolls on tubular bells, Clarke is effective (and harrowing) at capturing what we’ll call the negative imagination — the possibly limitless capacity for humans to invent and implement devices and techniques to injure one another with.

The concepts of Hell and war themselves are object lessons in this. Both are ultimate expressions of vengeance and zero tolerance: visions of the world necessitating punishment and torture.

So what makes this work so ultimately poignant — the main feeling we left the room with on opening night? Perhaps it’s the sense that the characters (not the dancers) we saw on stage were, on some level, very clearly amateurs at all of this, until late in the game.

Repeatedly, the inhabitants of the garden and the later bucolic peasants seem to do things mainly in order to see what happens next. The others look on as one man overeats, or another couple engages publicly in sex. What does happen when you do that? Everyone’s curious; nobody knows.

So they find out, trying everything they can imagine. Well into the middle of the work, the great majority of the behaviors on stage seem no more malicious than that.

We watch as a group of people slowly figures things out, mistake by awkward, painful (and sometimes fatal) mistake. We hope they’ll improve. But in Bosch’s world, wrong answers just keep getting wronger. Culture devolves into chaos: Every man for himself, and God against all.

The fall continues—so much so that we hope it continues well after the close of ADF.

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