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Montreal choreographer Marie Chouinard on bringing a surreal medieval painting to life

Dancers perform in Jérôme Bosch: Le Jardin des Délices, which is at Montreal’s Place des Arts from Sept. 28-30.

Sylvie-Ann Par

Montreal choreographer Marie Chouinard had seen Hieronymus Bosch's great triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights several times at the Prado in Madrid, and immediately thought of it when asked to create a Bosch-related work for the 500th anniversary of the painter's death, in 2016.

The Globe's Robert Everett-Green talked with her about the genesis of her three-act work, Jérôme Bosch: Le Jardin des Délices, which the Compagnie Marie Chouinard will perform on a Danse Danse program at Montreal's Place des Arts, Sept. 28-30.

What were your first thoughts about how to create a dance work based on Bosch's triptych?

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It was more vision and intuition than thoughts. I felt very drawn to all those bodies, so many men and women's bodies. It became clear to me that I was going to put myself totally in tune with those bodies, and not with the animals and objects and little monsters in the paintings. In the end, I used very few objects, one of them being the transparent sphere that appears in several places.

How did you proceed in practical terms?

The first thing I did was to ask my team to make an immense copy of the triptych that we could put in the studio and really look at. We tried to find every position of those people in the paintings, and how we could transfer those positions to our own bodies. There are hundreds of them!

Even after four, five and six weeks, we found there was always something we had not seen before. Once we had that vocabulary of positions, it was fun to discover how we could move from one to another.

It sounds like you started with a static representation in your own bodies, and then began to read what kind of energy was in those poses that you could follow.

Exactly. After that, the work becomes much harder to describe. That is when the creation of the choreography starts. How do I organize all those movements? There is also the geometrical construction of the space to consider, and the question of how to tune into the environment and spirit of each panel. The bodies in the paintings are not saying anything about that. It's very interesting, that many of the positions of the body are the same throughout the triptych, in Hell, in Paradise and in the Garden of Delights. I had to find the spirit of each of those environments.

When did the music come into it?

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Almost after the whole choreography was finished. I gave a video to Louis Dufort, with whom I have been working for 21 years, and then he started constructing his music. And when I received his music, I rearranged my choreography, because his work inspired me in a different way and gave me other input. We went back and forth several times like that.

I've always been amused and intrigued by the presence in the Hell panel of musical instruments, which I associate with pleasure, not pain. What do you make of that?

In my program, I call that panel Hell, which is the traditional way of referring to it, but it's not Hell. It's our daily life, and sometimes our daily life is dramatic and terrible. This panel has all the creations of humankind, including the creation of a baby, a house, and a work of art. It has musical instruments, a pregnant woman, someone skating on the ice, all these activities, and also destruction, because there's a fire in the back. And right in the middle is a self-portrait of Hieronymus Bosch, with a little smile on his face, looking at all the mess of our life on this planet.

If the Hell panel is really our daily life, what is the middle panel?

For me, the second panel is what would have happened in the Garden of Eden if human beings had been able to procreate without committing original sin. If they had not eaten the apple, there would have been all these people, celebrating the pleasures of paradise. All the pleasures would be innocent and accessible to everyone. It was a philosophical question in those days: What would have happened if they had not eaten the apple? Bosch's answer is in the central panel.

So you're still treating the whole triptych as the representation of a fall from grace, as in the Bible.

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I'm not connecting at all with the Bible, only with the work of Hieronymus Bosch. He was a very clever man, and I'm sure he was not into those things. He takes a lot of freedom from them. For example, it's Jesus who is shown presenting Adam to Eve. Come on, Jesus was not even born yet!

You have just finished your first season as director of dance at the Venice Biennale. What does that involve?

My function is to be the director of the dance festival there. I invited all the artists and organized the program, and I'm also the director of the dance college and the choreographer's college. It's called a biennale, but the festival will happen every year for four years. I'm already well into the planning for the next festivals, and I love it.

Sounds like a lot of work! Will you still have time to create new dances?

Of course! I just started a new one. (laughs)

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Editor’s Note: Last year was the 500th anniversary of the death of Hieronymous Bosch, not the 600th as reported in an earlier version of this story.
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