When a Painting Breathes

Marie Chouinard’s The Garden of Earthly Delights By Sheenagh Pietrobruno
  • Valeria Galluccio in Chouinard's The Garden of Earthly Delights / Photo by Nicolas Ruel
  • Leon Kupferschmid, Scott McCabe, Lucy M. May, Carol Prieur and Valeria Galluccio in Chouinard's The Garden of Earthly Delights / Photo by Nicolas Ruel
  • Morgane Le Tiec, Sacha Ouellette-Deguire, Carol Prieur, Leon Kupferschmid, Sébastien Cossette-Masse and Megan Walbaum in Chouinard's The Garden of Earthly Delights / Photo by Nicolas Ruel

Ottawa July 14, 2017, National Arts Centre

2016 marked the 500th anniversary of the death of Dutch Renaissance artist Jheronimus Bosch. It was also the year that Marie Chouinard was commissioned by the Jheronimus Bosch 500 Foundation to create a dance piece based on his paintings. Despite being worlds and centuries apart, Bosch and Chouinard are a perfect match. United by fearless creativity and twisted beauty, Bosch’s images and the choreography of the Québecois/Canadian choreographer cut through facets of humanity. Spirituality, eroticism, innocence, peacefulness, play, delight, humour, disgust, horror, violence, joy and mystery become dance in her momentous seventy-five-minute homage.

The Garden of Earthly Delights is a late-fifteenth-century work comprising a triptych of oil-on-oak paintings. The left panel features God presenting Eve to Adam. The right panel is hell as a frightful, sordid and monstrous nightmare. The middle panel is the enigmatic garden of earthly delights. Naked figures cavort in a dreamlike, surreal and topsy-turvy world, where the dimensions of the living and dead – fruits, mammals, fish, birds, eggshells, crystal balls – defy conventional scale. Does the garden represent the innocence of human pleasure before the knowledge of sin or the sordidness of desire and sexuality at the root of sin? Art historians continue to question its meaning.

Chouinard begins with the middle panel, which is the highlight of her work. A giant video reproduction of the triptych stands behind the dancers, and a dialogue quickly emerges between the painting and the choreography. On either side of the stage are giant circular video projections of the rich iconography of the painted garden. It is as though the audience are observing the details of the painting through a giant microscope or magnifying glass. The close-ups are vivified by the dancers.

Chouinard’s choreography does not merely mimic Bosch’s images: it reshapes them. The performance begins with a dancer who mirrors the bent-over human figure with a red apple in both hands and a blue bird on the back of a flexed foot. Then another dancer becomes the bird perched on the foot. Later the cast personifies the tiny humans carrying the giant strawberry – a stage prop made of a large plastic ball – on their backs. Chouinard adds a funny twist. Their almost naked buttocks poke out from under the giant strawberry, a shaking arm protruding from each of the dancers. Bosch’s penchant for this side of the human body comes to life. Toward the end, dancers recreate the courtship between the mermaid and the marine knight. The arms of the dancing couple and others reproduce the detail of the forked curlicue of the mermaid’s tail featured in the close-up.

The figures in Bosch’s garden are caught in poses that freeze their body parts in fixed geometric positions – a curled tail, a bent knee or arm, an outstretched crooked leg, a turned head. Within this rigidity is the suggestion of a movement always ready to happen. Chouinard’s choreography captures this play of stasis and motion. The dancers execute broken, sharp and angular gestures and stances while they simultaneously convey body fluidity. This synchronization of breaking and flux creates a hypnotic pace. Its rhythm makes the audience feel movement stripped down to its essence as human breath. Dance for Chouinard is breathing. Her painting respires before our eyes. I was left mesmerized by the choreographic beauty of the first part of the performance.

Hell, in contrast, is chaos. The dance is a frenzy on a stage cluttered with props: a cacophony of sounds and screams, a maze of bodies and objects. This interpretation of the right panel had less of an impact. We were not offered the same intriguing conversation between the choreography and the close-ups of the sordid images of hell projected on the circular screens. None of the imagery from the painting – not the giant rabbit eating a person, the pig in a nun’s habit or Bosch’s self-portrait perched on the top of a half-devoured, gigantic, sickly white, bird-like beast – appear onstage.

There are only allusions to Bosch’s iconography through the whirlwind and turmoil of hell. Music is torture in his vision. A dancer is caught in a ladder. Perhaps this mirrors Bosch’s giant instrument of torture – the harp – that entangles a human being in its strings. A dancer is straining to hold in each outstretched arm a long cylinder. The figure overburdened with a gigantic flute on his back comes to mind. The dancer at centre stage, stuck in a trash can, echoes the peering head of a figure trapped in a drum.

The enactment of the left panel rivals the first section of the performance in its subtle re-engagement with the details of the painting. This panel depicts the paradise scene when God introduces Adam to Eve. The backdrop of the painting zooms into a close-up of the three figures. We can see God, taking the form of Jesus, in a coral robe. He gazes outward. Eve is on the right, kneeling with eyes downcast. Adam, who is sitting with legs outstretched, looks up at God with awe. His feet touch God’s robe in an effort to get close to him.

This bliss of paradise resonates in a deliberate and calm choreography. When the figure of Adam touches God’s robe onstage, other dancers with legs outstretched sit beside Adam and wriggle their toes. The poses and glances of Bosch’s figures are continuously dislodged, recast and reproduced. The masculinity and femininity of Eve, Adam and God are fluid, and the three distinct glances of these central figures are replicated throughout. The repetition is soothing. It makes us feel the peace of Bosch’s scene. At the end of the performance, all the dancers look outward at the audience, reflecting God’s gaze. The choreography suggests that we can all occupy these roles: through their mixing and re-mixing, they become universal.

Near the end the dancers blend and disappear into a tree featured in the backdrop of Bosch’s paradise. A few moments later the stillness is broken, and the dancers stir and leave the painting. The symbolism is clear. Chouinard’s work is rooted in Bosch’s vision. But her dance gives life to his painting and makes it contemporary.

Right at the beginning of the performance, two images in Bosch’s middle panel featured in the giant backdrop nagged at me. One is the image at the far right of a black woman standing within a small group of white people, and the other on the far left is a black man also featured within a small group of white people. The presence of these two individuals kept jarring with the dancers, whose whiteness is accentuated by the chalky powder on their bodies. This whiteness reverberates near the end when, from the right and left circular screens, two giant, white, powder-dusted eyes – one with a blue pupil and the other green – look down at us.

The reasons why Bosch depicted black people in the middle panel are open to debate. Is Bosch’s universe rooted in a prejudicial and divisive biblical interpretation that associates Europeans with Adam and Africans with Cain? Or was he a Renaissance visionary who depicted a modern world that had not yet happened – a world where there would be African Europeans of influence (largely forgotten in history books)?

Art scholars have yet to solve this riddle. So let’s take the painting at face value and view it with a contemporary eye, as Chouinard is doing. There is actually diversity in the garden! Naked black and white people are cavorting together in this Renaissance painting. If Bosch’s mélange of human beings were better reflected among the dancers performing what it means to be human, Chouinard could be truer to her choreographer’s word “to ‘stick’ to Bosch’s painting, its spirit. The joy of bowing before a masterpiece!” 

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