Written, Directed, and Choreographed by Marie Chouinard
A Canadian Stage Presentation at the Bluma Appel Theatre,
April 19-23, 2017
This year marks the 500th anniversary of Hieronymus Bosch’s death, and Marie Chouinard’s 75-minute theatrical dance, derives its inspiration and some of its style from Bosch’s oil-on-oak triptych that hangs in the Prado. The original painting has three panels: one where God presents Eve to Adam; a central panel that depicts a dark, gruesome, nightmarish hell; and a third where naked figures frolic in a surreal landscape populated by fantastic mammals and fish. In many radical ways, Bosch was a critic or rebel. His art dared to defy orthodoxies of conventional painting, as well as orthodoxies of religion and the church. His God, for instance, is one of the smallest figures, tucked high away in one panel, whereas his devils are larger, literal animals that debase churchmen and nuns. There are also naked human figures engaged in a multitude of sexual and secular activities. In one panel, a figure sticks flowers into another person’s anus. And yet, The Garden of Earthly Delights is the most celebrated of Bosch’s paintings, and Marie Chouinard sticks to this art and its spirit by developing her own. What results, as she rightly claims in her program note, a spell-binding phantasmagoria that mirrors the angels or demons of our inner beings.
Chouinard’s creation is homage that expands in its own right. It doesn’t just bow to an earlier masterpiece; it becomes its own masterpiece. The work is set off by a set and video design featuring a large reproduction of Bosch’s triptych, but narrowing in, panel by panel, to match specific poses, gestures, and attitudes to particular choreography. There are circular modules, one at each downstage corner, and these become literal close-ups of details in the triptych. The principal image is a transparent sphere, that suggests a plastic balloon, as well as connoting a cosmic egg, womb, microcosm, bubble of mind/soul, cage/cell, or a fragile shell. Bosch never left any explanation or clarification of the meaning of his artistic symbols, emblems, and signs, and this ambiguity allows Chouinard to create her own rite and trance, her own exploration and experience.
The first section of the piece favours horizontals and floor work, duos, trios, and quartets offering splendid sequences. In one, an Adamic male feeds his Eve repeated bites of an imaginary apple, before touching her belly asexually, as if to signal the fruit of her womb. The all-but-nude dancers (four male, six female (including the brilliant veteran Carol Prieur)) make nakedness a form of pre-lapsarian reality rather than something erotic, though lewd gestures do infiltrate the choreography in a celebration of the carnal.
The second section is decidedly modern in tone, imagery, and style. Growls, screams of torment, and other vocalizations are amplified into a cacophony, and movement seems deconstructed. A skeleton at the rear, a high stepladder, garbage pails—visible emblems of a denuded, degraded world, marked for decay and death. The dancers trace starkly startling images: a snake curling out of a woman’s mouth; two battling women with prosthetic attachments to their arms; a four-headed mask; a male striking a crucifixion pose while entangled in the stepladder; a group forming a tableau vivant ship of fools. The choreography is deliberately disjointed, macabre, distorted, accompanied by a sound design amplifying mania. The tone is self-indulgent, with abrupt transitions, and yet all is stunningly eye-catching, mind-engaging.
Section Three opens with birdsong and insect buzz, with a closeup of an eye. Each of the two modules, however, has a differently coloured iris. And Chouinard’s inversions or reversals are alluring: a female Jesus presents Adam to Eve, rather than the other way round. Jesus holds Adam’s wrist as Eve rests a hand on the floor, both positions radically changing Bosch’s painted images, though the dancers’ gestures are identically matched to Bosch. The most salient body movement (angular crouches in the second section) is tiptoe and from the mid-riff, but with superb poise and balance effected. To the sounds of peaceful water and hymnal chant, the piece ends with a tone of sacred trance. The signature is Chouinard and her dancers’ unparalleled eloquent economy.