Flavorwire Required Viewing: Martha Clarke’s Garden of Earthly Delights

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Photo: Richard Finkelstein

Looking at The Garden of Earthly Delights, that trippy sixteenth-century triptych by Hieronymus Bosch, is a bit like perusing an X-rated Where’s Waldo? scene. But instead of a guy wearing a striped shirt and ski cap, you might find a naked woman reclining beside a fellow with a giant berry for a head, or a man getting mauled by a pig in a nun’s habit.

If you can’t make it to the Prado to check out the painting in person, there’s another option if you live in New York: Head on down to the Minetta Lane Theater, where The Garden of Earthly Delights comes to life six nights a week through March 1.

This darkly beautiful production is the creation of choreographer, director and all-around artiste Martha Clarke, who first staged it at Minetta Lane in 1984. Adored by critics then and now, Clarke’s dance-theater piece, like Bosch’s painting, begins in the paradise of Eden and follows mankind’s fall from innocence all the way down to the bowels of hell. [Editor’s note: If that sounds like an impossible journey, view the trailer and become a believer.]

It’s a long way to fall — for both the characters and the dancers portraying them. The cast of 11 performers spend a good portion of the 70-minute show soaring above the stage, hoisted by a wire and pulley system operated by dancers on the ground. The aerial segments alone are reason enough to see the show; in one of the loveliest flights, two women are suspended upside down in a double harness, their long hair flowing as they swoop side to side.

And if the flying adds to the lyrical, dreamlike quality of the paradise segment, it makes the scenes in hell even more violent and terrifying: Dancers are flung up and out into the balcony, while others spin out of control or just hang like slaughtered animals.

When we caught the show, dancers and audience members got an unscripted fright when a computer glitch caused one of the airborne dancers to plummet toward the stage for a few seconds before the safety mechanism kicked in. Apparently, Clarke told us a few days later, while most of the flights in the show are hand-operated by the dancers, the really high ones are computerized — for safety. “I prefer the hand to the computer, because the hand works every night,” Clarke said. “That night we definitely had gremlins.”

In Clarke’s eerie dream world, those mischievous creatures fit right in.

Photo: Richard Finkelstein

Photo: Richard Finkelstein