Compagnie Marie Chouinard: The Garden of Earthly Delights


Friday, Feb. 1

UNC’s Memorial Hall, Chapel Hill

The Garden of Earthly Delights, a Carolina Performing Arts co-commission from Compagnie Marie Chouinard, is beautiful, surreal, and exhilarating. Inspired by painter Hieronymus Bosch’s provocative sixteenth-century masterpiece of the same name, Canadian choreographer Marie Chouinard created the work to mark the five-hundredth anniversary of the artist’s death. CPA has a longstanding relationship with the company, previously co-commissioning works including Gymnopédies and Orpheus et Eurydice.

Bosch’s triptych is fascinating, mysterious, delightful, and terrifying. Its three panels reveal the bliss of the biblical Adam and Eve with God in paradise, the naked excitement of human and animal pleasure in the garden of delights, and the hell lustful souls will inhabit as their eternal reward. Chouinard’s choreography is also in three parts: “The Garden of Delights,” “Hell,” and “Paradise.” The production begins in quiet darkness. The triptych, projected onto a large backdrop, is closed at first. We see a flat Earth in a clear sphere that, as art historian Ludwig von Baldass pointed out, is devoid of humans or animals, depicting, perhaps, the third day of biblical creation. When the panels open, Act One begins, and we see Bosch’s painting as two dancers, both topless and wearing flesh-colored thongs, begin a graceful dance.

On each side of the stage, images are projected onto circular panels that reveal details of Bosch’s monumental painting. (Throughout the performance, the images change and correspond with the dancers’ movements.) The stage is bright and swells with more dancers, their arms reaching and undulating. At some points, they mirror one another’s movements; at others, they are fiercely independent. Movement becomes less graceful and tumbles into the grotesque with jerky gestures. Then, there is levity again: playful configurations and humorous, capricious leaping. There is also a clear domed structure the dancers carry in on their backs. At the end of the act, they enter the dome, mimicking the bodies entering a large egg in a detail from Bosch’s center panel. The soundtrack is atmospheric, with celestial vocalizing and the bright sounds of birdsong. Then, the stage falls dark, and Act Two is set to begin. 

Act Two takes us to Hell. The stage is dark, and a single performer vocalizes guttural, animal-like sounds into a microphone on top of metal cans. Soon, she is joined by a host of other characters, and chaos ensues. There’s a woman in a long blond wig climbing a ladder, only to slide down and begin climbing up again and again and again. There’s a woman with two bassoons affixed to her arms, transformed into a bizarre human-instrument hybrid. There are screams, crashing sounds, and disordered, desperate movement.  A man and a woman repeatedly engage in simulated sex, and it’s unclear if it’s consensual. The soundtrack is full of tension and distress.

Darkness beckons Act Three. In Bosch’s right panel, Adam and Eve are in the original garden with God. Chouinard plays with our expectations about gender and divinity throughout this act. The first three performers on stage mirror Bosch’s panel, but they exchange genders—a female dancer is Adam, seated with extended legs to the left of God, who is also a woman. A male dancer becomes Eve, kneeling to God’s right, with her right arm extended. God’s left hand is making a sign of blessing, and her right hand rests on Eve’s right wrist. This configuration is repeated by other performers—some men become God, some women are Eve, and so on. Many dancers don God’s robe. This movement grows graceful again, the stage bright, and there is lovely vocalizing and the sounds of birds and running water.

Chouinard’s choreography is arresting and inspired; it is playful and grotesque. Her decision to move from the painting’s center panel to the far-right panel and end with the glorious scene portrayed in the far-left panel is apt for our contemporary moment. The final panel offers a new beginning that eschews strict gender categories and expectations, inviting us to embrace a new Earth and imagine something else after the horror and chaos of hell.