Sin abounds in Hieronymous Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights – and if you can squeeze past the throngs of tourists typically paused in front of the 16th-century triptych at Madrid's Prado Museum, the debauchery is mesmerizing.
I got to see this masterwork of the Northern Renaissance a few weeks ago, and found myself leaning closer and closer toward the clusters of naked, entwined bodies – on horseback, in bathing pools, climbing bizarre flesh-coloured structures – wondering, at times, just what exactly these lithe people were up to. The three large oak panels are thought to represent the before, during and after of original sin; the density of activity is fascinating, the colours vibrant, the effect both creepy and serene. The final panel, Hell, seems like an uncanny precursor to 20th-century surrealism; people climb ladders into carcass-shaped treehouses, transform into animal tongues and are crushed by giant human ears. (Bosch is generally thought to have influenced Salvador Dali.)
There's something intuitive about pairing Marie Chouinard with the Early Netherlandish painter – an idea no doubt gleaned by the Jheronimus Bosch 500 Foundation, which commissioned the Canadian choreographer to make a dance/theatre piece based on the artist's work for the 500th anniversary of his death. Chouinard, an Officer of the Order of Canada and the new director of dance at the Venice Biennale, has always been interested in the stuff of flesh – the erotic, the grotesque and everything between them. When people still spoke of "enfants terribles" in the arts, the epithet was frequently hers; she liked to shock on stage, often with her shirt off, testing how long an audience could endure an ugly idea that played on our shame and tilted toward cruelty. If Bosch's line of influence fast-forwards to Dali, Chouinard's might rewind to Theatre of Cruelty dramatist Antonin Artaud.
Chouinard's ability to vivify the weirdness of Renaissance depictions of bodies and sex is just remarkable. Her Garden is divided into three acts, one for each panel, and when her (almost) naked dancers come on stage (beginning with the middle panel, which shares its name with the whole triptych), the effect is wholly unsettling. These people are like us, but they're not us; their powdered bodies are too light and their torsos move in such a way that makes them seem exaggeratedly long, as though rendered out of proportion. Sometimes the 10 dancers move like humans; other times, they're more like cooing, pecking birds. When they smile, they don't appear to feel pleasure; they're more like personifications of Pleasure, taunting us with their human form.
Similarly, their sexual courting and rituals are about 95-per-cent creepy and very alienating, while the remaining 5 per cent hits too close to home. It's Freud's notion of the uncanny to a T: The tiny portion we recognize is enough to make us squirm. A woman giggles, her eyes rolling back inside her head to the point of stupor while licking something off her partner's fingers. Later, four women lying on their stomachs are joined by four men who demonstrate their arousal with a foot lifted in unison. Sounds innocent enough, but it's oddly excruciating to sit through because of the funny melding of the familiar, the blatant and the bizarre. We don't trust these semi-real people to keep our secrets and we're not sure we want to know any more of their own. Two round screens flank the stage showing magnified excerpts of the painting. One of these is the image of a flower rising from a man's backside, which the dancers recreate by sticking their hands between each other's legs over and over again.
Chouinard does the first panel, Paradise, last. In it, a Christlike figure presents Eve to Adam and the dancers move and jump with an exultant recklessness. As an audience, our engagement is consistent with what it was in the first act, Garden. We're on the outside, looking in, and while we may feel implicated in all kinds of uncomfortable activity, we have distance to admire and recoil.
Chouinard eliminates that distance in her middle act, Hell. The section starts with a woman howling into a microphone amidst ear-piercing electrical feedback. Another woman has a Sisyphean struggle climbing and falling down a ladder. The other dancers drag all kinds of props and structures onto the stage; they shriek, simulate sex and prod each other with long spears. The whole scene devolves into a loud, nightmarish chaos that goes on much longer than you may hope or expect. Bosch's Hell is intricate and intelligent, replete with beautiful detailing of futuristic contraptions and fantastical imagery. Chouinard's Hell is simply painful. Bosch lets us observe his Hell, while Chouinard forces us inside the stink of hers. I'm not sure how we earned this punishment. I guess the idea is to make us feel something of 16th-century anxieties about sin and comeuppance – but it all being so awful and relentless, and then never appealing to our minds, it's just as easy to disengage.
It's hard to summarize the experience of sitting through Chouinard's Bosch. There's genius in her ability to breathe life into the strangeness of sexuality as seen in Renaissance art. In doing so, she touches upon a more fundamental strangeness about the way we engage or disengage with the canonical works of our past. What do we allow ourselves to recognize as familiar and what do we cast off as inaccessible and weird? The beautiful parts of the 75-minute work are unsettling; the ugly parts are hard to bear. Maybe that answers my own question.
Hieronymous Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights continues at Toronto's Bluma Appel Theatre, Canadian Stage, until April 23 (canadianstage.com).