Review: Marie Chouinard’s Earthly Delights takes us on a strange, fantastic journey

A scene from Marie Chouinard's Garden of Earthly Delights. Photo: Nicolas Ruel

When the creative originality of Quebec choreographer Marie Chouinard meets the eccentric genius of 15th-century Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch, the result is a strange, fantastic trip through humanity’s darkest nightmares and purest dreams.

Chouinard’s Garden of Earthly Delights, which debuted in Bosch’s hometown last summer, had its Ottawa premiere Friday night as part of Canada Scene. Commissioned for the 500th anniversary of the painter’s birth, it’s a compact, gorgeously imaginative three-act ballet inspired by Bosch’s marvellous triptych of the same name.

Here Chouinard continues her experiments with translating two-dimensional imagery into three-dimensional choreography, an approach she used to brilliant effect in 2011’s Henri Michaux: Mouvements, in which dancers recreated Michaux’s ink drawings with their bodies. Earthly Delights pushes the idea further: while, there is some literal depiction of vignettes from Bosch’s panels, the dancers riff on the pictures with more freedom, expanding on the portraits and bringing them to life.

The first act portrays the central and most famous panel, the Garden of Delights, and is given over to innocent sensuality and pleasure. The 10 dancers, nude except for thong underwear and white body paint, recreate some of Bosch’s whimsical characters: lovers, birds, mermaids, equestrians and bathers. Fruit is plucked and eaten, flowers sprout from people’s backsides. The dancers crawl inside a giant inflatable clear plastic pod and have a party.

Chouinard has the entire painting projected on an enormous backdrop screen, with two smaller, circular screens downstage zooming in on the details as they’re acted out. By making the dancers angle their limbs sideways while looking toward the audience with that beatific, half-smiling expression favoured by the Dutch Primitives, Chouinard gives her choreography an extraordinary, medieval flatness.

The middle act is faithful to Bosch’s concept of Hell in mood only. The action seems to take place in a lunatic asylum where the inmates are as jolly as they are disturbed. Dancers shriek and howl, using an assortment of props — a ladder, alpenhorns, garbage cans, yellow rubber boots — to torment each other and generally create a loud chaos. Hell, in this case, really is other people.

The last act depicts the Paradise panel of the triptych. It unfolds serenely, the figures passing on platonic love and harmony through sedate, highly stylized gestures reminiscent of courtly dance. Instead of close-ups of the painting, the round video screens show two eyes, perhaps suggesting that creation happens in front the audience as much as it does under the original artist’s gaze.

Compagnie Marie Chouinard will also be at the National Gallery of Canada on Saturday, July 15 with a revised version of Chouinard’s 2012 solo In Museum, where the choreographer danced requests from the audience. In this three-hour, interactive outdoor performance, dancers from the company will interpret the wishes whispered to them by visitors. The show is free and starts at 2 p.m. on the Plaza.

Share Post
Written by

Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.