Review: Hieronymous Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights (Canadian Stage)

Canadian Stage brings the classic painting by Hieronymus Bosch to life in Toronto

This weekend only (April 19-23, 2017), you can see renowned choreographer Marie Chouinard’s rich and vivid work bringing the art of Hieronymous Bosch to the stage in Hieronymus Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights at the Bluma Appel Theatre.

Hieronymus Bosch was a Dutch painter in the 15th and 16th Centuries that created some fantastical imagery of religious scenes. Here, choreographer Marie Chouinard captured the imagery and spirit of Bosch’s most famous work, The Garden of Earthly Delights.

For me this was a deeply moving experience that I’d highly recommend. It is a layered performance laden with imagery that is at once deeply spiritual, human, sensual, and sometimes quite disturbing. This complexity (not to mention the nudity) does make it so that the show is not very accessible to the lay viewer.

Two round screens on opposite sides of the stage show close-up vignettes from Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights that the dancers are recreating. But this piece doesn’t just try to mirror Bosch’s triptych, it explores the many facets of it on a deeper, more profound level.

Like Bosch’s triptych, Chouinard divides The Garden of Earthly Delights into three parts. The first was playful and rich with mirth. The dancers frolicked about onstage, exploring themselves, each other, and the space around them. They seemed free in their movement, but there was a clear sense of direction in the choreography that lent a certain comfort.

This first dance felt grounded, and pure; an idealistic depiction of existence before humanity was cast out of the garden. I was not prepared for the second part.

If you look at the triptych, the third panel on the far right is quite different from the other two. This is what came next. It opened with one of the dancers standing nude atop two boxes, her legs spread out and a spotlight shone down on her. She wailed into a microphone, and in the background we heard sounds of violins screeching, and deep horns.

This piece was, without a doubt, one of the most disturbing things I have ever seen in the theatre and I commend Chouinard for this. I sat there with my mouth slightly open and my eyes wide in shock. I had shivers as the rest of the dancers marched onstage, shrieking, contorting themselves, using props to create vivid phallic imagery. The effect this second act had on me was so profound that I wouldn’t be surprised to find myself dreaming about it five years from now.

The third part was the most pointed and grounded of the three. It was heavy with religious imagery and depictions of Christ, and though less playful than the first part it had a similarly warm tone.

All together, the three parts of The Garden of Earthly Delights were incredible in how they explored not just the imagery but also the meaning behind Bosch’s triptych. While watching this performance, I lost track of time in a way that I’d never before experienced in the theatre.

This was a wholly unique experience for me, almost transcendental. It’s certainly not an accessible piece, but it ranks as one of the most nuanced and deeply moving works I’ve seen.

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Image provided by the company.