Times Arts Editor

When it comes to the dance, I am a critical wallflower: the original wanderer through an art gallery who doesn't know what's good but knows what he likes.

Through a miracle of timing, I was present at Nureyev's succession of gravity-ignoring leaps called "Le Corsaire" during his premiere performance in London as a member of the Royal Ballet. The ovation lasted five times as long as the dance. I have no idea how it rated as choreography, but as performance it was heart-stopping.

I've also squirmed through what I've felt were more than my share of molty "Swan Lakes" and other dance dramas that are wonderful when they're done well and dreadful when the performance is ragged and second-rate. Opera and dance may be alike in that the gulf between what works and what doesn't is so vast, approaching the galactic; and good luck to those who choose wrong.

But at that, it's the triumphs that stay with you; and to Nureyev in "Le Corsaire" and a slender sheaf of other remembered moments of dance, I have to add Martha Clarke's fantastical production of "The Garden of Earthly Delights," the opening attraction at the former Huntington Hartford, now the James A. Doolittle Theatre on Vine in Hollywood.

Dan Sullivan has already noted his delight with "Earthly Delights" and his slight frustration, which I share, at knowing how best to describe a theatrical experience that is, as some commodity in commercials was said to be, indescribably delicious.

How to explain this plaintive musical trio at stage rear, including a Pan-like figure blowing an assortment of pipes and woodwinds. He, and the cellist and an all-purpose percussionist, are, like the 10 dancers, clad in a sort of second-skin body stocking of a rather ghostly pre-summer tan flesh tone. The effect of the stockings on the dancers--I will not speak of the musicians--is at once innocent and erotic, like the entire evening.

To set the evening schematically is to make it sound unutterably cerebral, high art at its most orbital, inspiration from Hieronymus Bosch, Eden, the Garden, the Seven Sins, Hell and all that.

But this does not begin to suggest how funny much of the performance is: slyly witty, and with a gift of double take that owes as much to Jack Benny as to Balanchine.

The theater is gray with incense smoke even as the audience takes its seats. I presume this is to symbolize that earthly delights are indeed the stuff of the evening, but it ought also to raise the possibility that the art of the dance just might be fun, and attendance a reward, not a duty. The gala opening-night audience, stiff with duty, took a while to see that laughter was encouraged, and unavoidable.

(One of my favorite theater jokes has always been about the two Boston matrons emerging from a comedy, and one saying, "Terribly funny; I could hardly keep from laughing.")

But "The Garden of Earthly Delights" is obviously more than funny (and ribald and earthy, for that matter). It has the excitement of disciplined art linked to the creation of an astonishing original work. You need not be a student of the dance, I think, to appreciate the freshness and beauty of the movement: the effortless and unusual lifts and carries, the sensual interplay of bodies--"rolling together in the lap of Spring," to quote from Robert Hillyer.

You realize very quickly that this is dance, not pantomime, and that there is a difference. This is stylized storytelling, done with most marvelous grace and invention, and with a sure and steady progression from whimsical, innocent light to cacophonous dark, from dream to nightmare, and with the dancers flying out over the audience and up into the rafter gods. (The handling of this is spectacular, and makes Peter Pan seem flatfooted and earthbound.)

Like Bill Bushnell's just-launched downtown theater center, the renamed James A. Doolittle Theatre, housing as it does a new production enterprise formed by UCLA and the Center Theatre Group, represents a notably promising forward thrust in the Los Angeles theatrical scene.

It seems to me that "The Garden of Earthly Delights" is a symbolically perfect opening attraction: exploratory, original, excellent, unconventional, even controversial--and highly entertaining. It runs through Oct. 27, and having said all this about it, I'm still not sure you'll know what you might have missed until you see it.

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