Hieronymus Bosch’s busy, bawdy 500-year-old triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights has provoked debate for centuries. Millions flood Madrid’s Prado Museum each year to get a closer look at the naked cavorters, the bird-monsters, the luridly swollen strawberries, and the bulbous pink and blue structures that look straight out of a sci-fi cityscape.
With so much going on in the painting, it’s amazing that Canadian choreographic icon Marie Chouinard focused so quickly on what to portray in her dance ode to the work.
The Montreal artist had been commissioned by the Netherlands’ Jheronimus Bosch 500 Foundation to create a piece to mark the 500th anniversary of the painter’s death. Knowing immediately that she wanted to delve into The Garden of Earthly Delights, she had a giant 10-by-10-foot reproduction of the painting printed and laid it out on the floor of her studio with her dancers.
“Right from the beginning I decided that I would concentrate on the human bodies, even though there are so many other beings there,” says Chouinard from Montreal, still ebullient about a project she says is the most “joyous” she’s ever worked on. “We were bending over it and we were just studying all those positions and incorporating those into the body—the feet like this, the head like this—and just making our bodies into those bodies.”
The result is Hieronymus Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights, an epic work that’s blissfully, nakedly alive, its white-powdered half-nude forms evoking both the wonderfully weird painting and the ideas it spurred in Chouinard. Imagery from the artwork appears in projections, and a main set piece is a giant bubble like the ones in which people embrace in Bosch’s central panel. “He has so many bubbles in this painting and they’re such a mystery, because nothing like that could have existed in his time!” remarks Chouinard.
Chouinard says she did deep research into Bosch’s masterpiece, but ultimately found most of her inspiration when responding to it directly. It’s an approach she’s used in works DanceHouse has brought to Vancouver, from Henri Michaux: Mouvements, based on that artist’s 1950s ink drawings, to her own sexually charged riff on The Rite of Spring. “With Rite of Spring, I went right to Stravinsky’s piece and the sound and how it affected my body hearing it,” she says. “How does it affect my desire to make movement, how does it create an inner spirit in me?”
By pushing aside the art-history books, she came up with her own takes on the Bosch panels that scholars still debate to this day. “The central panel, when you read about it, is all about sin,” she observes of the section that’s filled with pleasure-seeking naked figures. “But no: when you really look at it, these are gentle, soft people who are absolutely innocent.”
Moving to the left-hand painting, generally seen as depicting Eden, with God presenting Adam and Eve to each other, Chouinard was struck by how much God resembles Jesus. “This is an anachronism; it’s so funny—he was not born yet. I think the work is full of humour,” she observes. “It’s Man and Woman being presented one to the other. So it’s the Paradise of the moment of the meeting, so pure and beautiful.”
Which brings us to hell, or the Last Judgment, which the haunting right-hand panel is usually said to show—burning city, severed ears, and all.
“I interpreted that this panel is not about hell, but it’s about this life—which is all sorts of horror and torture,” Chouinard says. “You don’t have to go to hell to experience hell. For me, it was describing not just what was his hell, but also for my time.”
Bosch filled the last tableau with symbolic musical instruments, a nod, perhaps, to man’s earthly creations. In Chouinard’s wild dance expression, look instead for objects from her own previous artworks. Dancers shriek and howl, creating chaos with an assortment of props—a ladder, alphorns, yellow rubber boots.
But the right-hand panel is not all darkness, Chouinard stresses. Amid her work, she became obsessed with its surreally fascinating central figure, the Tree Man, whom many believe to be a self-portrait of Bosch himself. His torso, supported by contorted, trunklike arms, is cut open, revealing three nude people, sitting on an animal, at a table. The figure’s head is turned back to look at them, with a half-smile as enigmatic as the Mona Lisa’s. Chouinard has bonded closely with that amazing face through her creative process—even if it’s meant connecting with a like-minded artist who lived half a millennium ago.
“That little smile is so intelligent and full of love,” she remarks. “You can see his deep understanding of and love for humankind—poor humankind, but beautiful.
“Bosch is like a dear friend in my heart,” the artist adds wistfully. “I know I love him—like a family link, a friendship link.”
DanceHouse presents Marie Chouinard’s Hieronymus Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights at the Vancouver Playhouse on Friday and Saturday (March 15 and 16).