Earthly Delights: Other-Worldly

Compagnie Marie Chouinard unfolds Hieronymus Bosch triptych for DΛNCE H⌂USE

The Naked and the Dead, hellbent. Photo : Nicolas Ruel

Next to the Mona Lisa, Hieronymus Bosch’s 16th century triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights might be the most viewed Art Historical meme in pop culture. You might remember it from your freshman year Hum 101Western Civ survey. Or maybe from a visit to Madrid’s Prado Museum, where the enigmatic masterpiece holds pride of place, inspiring later generations of surrealists.

Or maybe from some chemically addled party back in the day where you zoned out on its hundreds of blanched, naked figures writhing through scenes of bliss, torment or transfiguration – too much hallucinatory detail for even a stoned mind to take in.

But now you can access Bosch’s dreamscape from the comfort of a Vancouver Playhouse armchair with Montreal celebrity choreographer Marie Chouinard as your personal guide. She not only blocked the paces for her 10-member eponymous troupe; she also took personal charge of the set, props, video, costume and lighting design – the all-purpose, indispensible Virgil to lead you through the Dantesque convolutions of Bosch’s cosmology.

It’s a highly idiosyncratic tour. Most interpreters parse the triptych from left to right, starting with God’s introduction of Eve to Adam in the Garden of Eden in the first scene, then proceeding through the heedlessly libidinous playground of the central panel and on to the third panel’s Wages of Sin in hell.

Chouinard reshuffles this sequence into Divine Comedy order. Like Dante, she begins nel mezzo del camin in the mortal world, then plunges for a deep dive into the Inferno before ascending, at last, to what she deems “Paradise” in her program notes. In triptych terms, that’s centre panel, then right, then left. (There’s no Dantesque Limbo; the 75 minute performance runs without intermission).

But, unlike Dante’s, Chouinard’s earthly prelude is anything but aspra e forte (“bitter and harsh”). Rather her Act 1 is adilation upon the titular “Delights” of embodied human life. Even zooming in on the centre panel and blowing up its projected image to the full 24’ x 60’ dimensions of the Playhouse scrim, there’s way more going on in the tableau than the eye can absorb.

So Choinard zeroes in on particular details that she highlights on rondel screens on either side of the stage. Taking their cues from these vignettes, the dancers mirror the depicted poses and then elaborate them into a follow-through gestural line. It may be a solo arabesque or an amorous pas de deux or an orgiastic ensemble piece.

At one point the entire cast winds up encased in a giant bubble, jiggling and groping in an ecstatic line dance. Another time they gather in a ring with upturned ovoid mouths, like hungry nestlings. There’s a lot of munching and fruit-plucking and mutual feeding.

In line with Bosch’s penchant for painting flowers that sprout from assorted human orifices, Choinard now and then has her dancers double over to moon the audience while reaching up between their own legs to pantomime crotch-level blooms. There’s a merry-go-round scene with the dancers pairing up to present a reeling sequence of human riders on their bestial mounts.

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