In the beginning was the painting. And paint was made flesh—also dance, mime, aerial acrobatics and music. No words, to speak of. Words were spoken, however, by a pair of Village Voice critics, who squabbled in print—though both loved the work—about whether Martha Clarke and Richard Peaslee’s The Garden of Earthly Delights was theatre or dance or something else entirely. Since Music-Theatre Group/Lenox Arts Center had staged it (at the producing group’s New York base, St. Clement’s Church, where a revised version of the work opens Nov. 13), music-theatre seemed to be the logical category. And if it’s not spoken drama, the thing’s undeniably theatrical as hell-even the parts that aren’t about Hell.
But in the beginning was the painting, and a bunch of creative people. Or, rather, several paintings-Hieronymus Bosch’s spectacular 15th-century altarpiece, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” his circular panel illustrating “The Seven Deadly Sins,” and several representations by him of “Eden” and “Hell.” In the notorious triptych, hundreds of minuscule figures cavort in a garish landscape of perspective tricks, vast birds and oversized household objects —“No one’s ever gone further on the subiect of hallucination than Bosch,” says dancer-director Clarke. Reproductions of “The Garden” enjoyed quite a vogue in the psychedelic era, about the time Clarke and five other dancer-mime-acrobats formed Pilobolus Dance Theater. She knew the painting well. “I’m not the most verbal person in the world” she says. “I often start with painters as my source.”
And there is infinite movement in the painting, as the tiny figures deliberately and single-mindedly go about their mad decathlons of pleasure and sin and torment. Clarke and her collaborators saw the movement and put it on stage.
The intensitv of medieval religious art is present in Clarke’s Garden, and the puzzlement. In one scene, a woman’s long, long hair winds around the body of a man. They rise and circle each other, and the hair flows about his head and her head, hides her face, drops back, becomes a new sort of appendage. Pushing back hair, the man seems to discover her face and his own, and to ponder: What are these? How do they differ?
Clarke is one of the growing number of theatre artists who do not fit in the old pigeonholes or, rather, who fit in many of them at once. She left Pilobolus in 1979 to form her own company Crowsnest, and to investigate other theatrical arenas. From experimental dance, she brought her sense of theatre (which Anna Kisselgof of The New York Times has referred to as “zany”) to other performing arts. It was producer Lyn Austin of MTG/LAC, with whom Clarke has worked in many capacities, who first proposed she try her hand at directing theatre, and she won an Obie in 1982 for A Metamorphosis in Miniature, based on Kafka, like Garden an indescribable mixed-form work. In the early fall of 1983, Austin called Clarke and asked, “What would you like to do this spring?” She said, “I don’t know. Call me back in 20 minutes and I’ll think of something.” Twenty minutes later, “Like a lightbulb in a cartoon,” the idea popped up: Hieronymus Bosch.
Clarke invited cellist Eugene Friesen to dinner that night, and in three days he had collected Steven Silverstein, a performer of Renaissance wind instruments, and percussionist Bill Rule, to look at the picture and jam: improvise on Eden, improvise on Hell. Clarke’s company Crowsnest, which by then included Robert Barnett, Felix Blaska and Marie Fourcaut, also began to improvise on the pictures. Robert Faust, formerly of Pilobolus, and his friend Polly Styron shortly joined the group, and Clarke invited solo dancer Margie Gillis because of her talent and her hair. “Bosch’s women have these long blonde tresses, just like Margie’s so I called her and said, ‘How would you like to do this crazy thing with Bosch?'” Seven dancers and three musicians got together for a couple of hours every day to play games. “It was collaboration in the true sense of the word, asserts Clarke. “There were 10 wildly creative people who were talking all of the time. It was important for everybody to express opinions about everything.
“Before we started rehearsing, we just stared at the pictures and drank them in and then started fooling around, playing Bosch games. Occasionally we’d take images right from the painting, but none of that stuff stayed—there are no specific references.
Clarke’s other wish was to fly. It came true. There’s lots of flying in Garden. Dancing angels playing ocarinas. Satanic spirits whirling in mid-air, tormented by perpetual motion. Most magical of all, perhaps, is the mimed flight: Dancers flow on the ground without moving, arms stir in a winged rhythm. Crouching on their backs, passengers peer down, eyes focused hundreds of feet below. After a while, we in the audience can see the clouds pass beneath them.
A composer was required. Although Pierre Cardin, an enthusiastic supporter of Crowsnest’s work, had underwritten much of Garden‘s development, Lyn Austin had an eye on another funding source, a grant for composing an original theatre score. She called in Richard Peaslee, who had worked on many projects with her, and the grant was applied for. Peaslee jumped in with both feet. “What I really did work off was these wonderful musicians,” he declares. “They’d watch the dancers and improvise, and on the basis of that, I’d make some suggestions, and note some things down, and go home and think about it. I’d come back with a few notes, and it was another step forward.”
Steven Silverstein plays 18 different instruments in the show—Japanese and Bulgarian flutes, ocarinas, Renaissance cornettos, bagpipes, the serpent. “We were sort of aiming for a Renaissance sound, but we just looked at the paintings and invented sounds that went together,” he says. “We found, for instance, that the ponticello effect [on the cello| went with Bulgarian flute when played in seconds, and Dick Peaslee heard us do that and wrote a wonderful piece in seconds based on our improvisation.”
One of the startling things about Garden is the presence of the musicians as performers. Music and action are melded in some extraordinary images: A glockenspiel played on a woman’s chest while she wriggles in the arms of the player is both sensuous and hilarious. Chimes and a drum become instruments of torture, the cello of murder. Another traditional artistic barrier bites the dust.
“My conception of movement has changed,” says Silverstein. “When you’re playing a cornet and someone walks on the floor behind you, that changes the pitch. And here I was being swung upside-down while I played the serpent. But it worked, because the dancers were so well balanced, the movement was steady.”
Hauling the musicians into the act seems to have been an unplanned result of the anarchic creation process. “What dancers often do when they first start to work together,” says Clarke, “is just jump on each other, learn each other’s weights and strengths. This is how you discover partnering. It’s like boy meets girl. Dancer meets dancer, and you just start climbing all over each other. So we just started doing that to the musicians. There’s something primal about it- you just don’t go through any of the normal codes of behavior. And they loved it, it was like kindergarten, it was jungle gym.
“Some wild things went on,” Peaslee confirms. “Bill Rule was being spun around so that every time he passed the marimba he’d play a glissando. And the guys were so game about it. Most musicians are very reluctant to move at all. And most musicians are very nervous about their instruments.”
After two months, “the Diary, a notebook of material they’d invented, was full to bursting, but there was no shaped work yet. “People expect a kind of logic to the organization of a theatre piece,” says Clarke. “Dance is more abstract, and Garden hovers between dance and theatre. In Metamorphosis I couldn’t just fall in love with an image—the piece had to follow Kafka’s story. But there’s no story in the painting.”
She found a solution by chance. She was handed a book on Bosch written by novelist Peter Beagle. “I looked on the back cover and there he was—so I called him. And he flew out from the West Coast and talked with us about Bosch’s imagery and the historical period for six days, and saw everything we’d done. On the last day he said, I’ve seen about a hundred different isolated blueprints, like separate pearls, and I’m not going back till we sit down and arrange a scenario. First, you’ve got to start with primordial ooze…”
Sobs, tuneless, lost, arise from a satyr-like figure blowing some sort of horn—something that moans—and animal shapes, like limping gazelles, awake and cross the stage. One of them falls, dies. Two others seize it with their teeth and drag the corpse off-stage. The music becomes elegiac and the myth of Eden begins.
The structure that finally emerged after Beagle’s visit seems to move from innocence to corruption to despair. Innocence—the love duet of the long hair—gives way to images of sensuality. The Seven Sins, that favorite medieval motif, follows: mankind becomes grosser, explores baser emotions and vulgar bodily functions. The conclusion is Hell, which in the company’s view appears to signify the frustration of effort. A musician playing chimes is teased by demons striking the wrong notes and, now and then, his skull; the cellist is attacked by a devil who plucks and rubs the wrong string in mid-solo; monsters and victims fly unpredictably overhead. The images are simultaneously beautiful and horrible—and horribly inventive. Who has ever made despair quite so much fun?
“I can’t tell you how many terrific gags we have that we weren’t able to use,” Clarke alleges, “but the whole process of making something is editing out things that don’t work. There were wonderful sequences—it was awful to give them up. But I’m a bit ruthless that way.”
To pare the work down to considerably less than two hours seems to have required the deletion of enough material for half a dozen theatre pieces—there was a full set, for instance, a jungle of leering branches, built by an ingenious and sympathetic designer. It vanished a week or two before the opening—“All this wonderful clutter, but it didn’t work. It got in the way,” sighs Clarke. The audience didn’t miss it, and lighting designer Paul Gallo won this year’s Joseph Maharam Award for his elegant contribution.
As a work in progress, The Garden of Earthly Delights sold out its first brief run at St. Clement’s.
Revised and completed, Garden will follow its second run there—if all goes as planned—with a national tour and a visit to Paris in the spring. Once again editorial staffs will be distressed: Do they send the theatre critic? the dance critic? the opera critic?
Clarke finds those heated questions of artistic categories amusing but beside the point. “I just never thought I’d be party to something people would like so much,” she shrugs with a wide, non-verbal smile.
John Yohalem writes frequently on music, theatre and various combinations of the two.
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