Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Martha Clarke: Mistress of Aerial Choreography

Also see Bob's review of Rabbit Hole


Egil Rostad and
Gabrielle Malone

Acclaimed choreographer/director Martha Clarke has brought to New Jersey her new version of one of her most acclaimed dance-theatre pieces, Garden of Earthly Delights.  Upon the completion of its performances here, it is moving into New York's Minetta Lane Theatre for a scheduled twelve week run.  Featuring aerial choreography (with the vital assistance of Flying by Foy) which extends over our heads into the farthest reaches of the theatre, Clarke's dancers perform feats of true dance movement which are far more satisfying than the "mere" acrobatics of Cirque du Soleil.  Clarke informs us in a program note that she has restaged Garden, incorporating a new and expanded "vocabulary" of aerial choreography which she developed since its original staging 20 or so years ago.

Clarke's work is based on a late 15th century triptych by the Netherlands's Hieronymus Bosch.  The painting is phantasmagoric.  To overly simplify, the first panel depicts G-d bringing the newly created Eve to Adam; the larger, rectangular middle panel features a plethora of naked people frolicking about and engaging in various sexual acts; and the last panel depicts a dark hell in which naked figures are shown to be variously suffering, and an act of bestiality is seen in the far right, bottom corner.  Bosch's painting is both moral and cautionary, and erotic and pornographic.

And the same can be said for Martha Clarke's version.  Most satisfactory is the opening twenty-five minutes depicting Creation and the Garden of Eden.  The dancing has a buoyant, ethereal quality which is transporting.  Initially, as the dancers portray impossibly shaped animals mirroring those in Bosch's painting, it even suggests evolution.  The dancers are clad in flesh-colored, skin-tight costumes which are diaphanous except for the area between the waist and the thighs.  This allows us to see the trim and taut bodies of the eleven dancers, adding to the beauty and eroticism of the piece and evoking memories of the beauty of rippling naked bodies in a short ballet Margo Sappington danced and choreographed in Oh!, Calcutta oh so many years ago.    Performing Garden of Earthly Delights without body stockings would be most appropriate and enhance the eroticism, dance movement, and box office.

Ethereal eroticism is followed by some purposeful vulgarity which reflects Bosch's triptych as the men primitively demonstrate their base carnality.  Then the mood turns dark and somber.  The dancers don costumes which would be appropriate for a production of Arthur Miller's The Crucible.  It crosses my mind that I may be watching a man being burned at the stake.  But in the next moment, it appears that he is rising from the stake as Jesus rose from the cross.  I find myself at a loss to linearly follow the events on stage.  Although there is no dialogue throughout the piece, I would appreciate having read a plot outline to guide me through this morass.  In a program note, Clarke writes that the triptych "depicts the progression of sin from creation to hell ...."  A more literal summary of her adaptation would enhance and illuminate the work.

In the final section, which clearly depicts hell, the dancers (back in their body stockings) risk life and limb in a display of aerial choreography which is beautiful and breathtaking. It is difficult to identify each by name because the program lists each dancer only as "performer." Suffice it to say that there are no slackers here, and that each and every one deserves a full measure of praise.

Performing the original and richly imaginative music of Richard Peaslee are four musicians who, dressed as monks, move in and out of the action.  They play a variety of winds, woodwinds, percussion and a cello with aplomb.

Because of its thrust stage and expansive, high-ceilinged yet intimate, semi-circular raked seating, the Two River Theatre provides an ideal environment for Clarke's high flying choreographic brilliance.  You have until Sunday to catch it there.

Garden of Earthly Delights continues performances (Evenings: Wednesday —Saturday 8 p.m./ Matinees Wednesday 1 p.m.; Saturday —Sunday 3 p.m.) through September 14, 2008 at the Two River Theatre Company (Rechnitz Theatre), 21 Bridge Avenue, Red Bank, NJ 07701. Box Office: 732-345-1400; online:

Garden of Earthly Delights conceived, directed and choreographed by Martha Clarke; music composed by Richard Peaslee

Sophie Bortolussi/ Benjamin G. Bowman/ Marjorie Folkman/ Kurt Froman/ General McArthur Hambrick/ Whitney V. Hunter/Gabrielle Malone/ Jennifer Nugent/ Matt Rivera/ Jenny Sandler/Isadora Wolfe

Photo: Erin Baiano

Be sure to Check the current schedule for theatre in New Jersey

- Bob Rendell

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