The American Dance Festival’s 74th season — its 30th season in Durham — opened with Martha Clarke’s re-worked Garden of Earthly Delights. Nearly a quarter-century ago, she astonished the world with the first version of this epic dance theater journey which moves from Edenic innocence through the varieties of sin into the regions of the damned. Now a more experienced artist with a broader and more nuanced vocabulary, mistress of her crafts and a far wiser woman, Clarke has returned to the sequence of images inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s 1504 triptych to present what is being billed as a work-in-progress during its four performances in Duke’s Reynolds Theater. She achieves her vision with a superlative group of multi-skilled dancers and musicians she has brought together for this work, and an inventive technical staff.

This Garden is not the kind of thing you’d keep in active repertory — it is too big, too demanding, too exhausting for a steady diet. But what a wonderful work for the artist to revisit, and not just for herself and the lucky viewers who saw it in the 1980s, but for the new generations of audience and dancers (most of the 465 students at this year’s ADF School would not have been born when the original was performed). Call them what you will, sins or character flaws, we still must all come to terms with the effects of our headlong plunge from innocence into the soul-coarsening miasma of lust, avarice, gluttony, envy, apathy, pride and wrath through which we flail and stumble. Few artists are capable of so thoroughly examining life’s broad messy field in these terms, and even fewer can make the delicate distinctions of understanding required of great art. Clarke does both, while evoking visceral panic and aesthetic ecstasy.

Clarke succeeds in distinguishing with remarkable clarity between the erotic and the lustful, between love-making and fornicating — a task that may be even more difficult for art (that curious voyeur) than in life. Adam and Eve’s appreciative touching and their lovely little floating dances in Eden are piercingly sweet, sweeter by far than the seductions of the tongue-flicking snake woman. In her innocence, Eve takes the apple, and in her generosity she shares it — and there is the tragedy, bitter and pithy as an apple core. We lose our innocence because we are innocent. Then we suffer, because we would not be ignorant, but would savor the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.

Not dealing in tableaux, but ceaselessly unreeling her images, Clarke takes us over the precipice into the pit with her rich mix of motion, line, shape and dramatic vignette. On earth, her people dance delightedly with their devils. But after an arduous crossing of the River Styx (beautiful, chilling, images), the devils take them home to hell, and from then on, the party’s no fun. What had been pleasure perverts to pain, with a slight shift in an image or inversion of a prop. There’s always a fresh hell, but worse, there is always the same hell. The Hell section of this work is longer and more fully developed than in the previous version. One knows more about these things as the years go by.

Another change in this production is the increase in the aerial work. The flying sequences are ravishing, the more so because they are not overused. In one scene, set to chiming sounds, the dancers whiz through the air like bells being rung. When things are at their most fevered, dancers come soaring far out over the audience along a specially installed track from which they are suspended. This is quite exciting, but the vision of a horizontal figure hovering and watching above the lighting grid is even more powerful.

As brilliant as the imagery and its dancerly execution are, they would be ash without the music and the three very fine musicians playing onstage and taking part in the action. Composer Richard Peaslee has collaborated again with Clarke for this re-working of the Garden, and his score arranges the ancient and the timeless into modern shapes. His use of the frightening sonority of the Gregorian melody of the Dies Irae pushes open the doors to hell, and the vibrating mouth harp shoves a wedge under it. The woodwinds, the cello and the percussion are no less effective elsewhere. When some hapless sinner is beaten with the pounding bass drum, then broken on it like Catherine on the wheel, I found myself hunched and shuddering in my seat.

Although Clarke’s source imagery is Bosch’s, his painting is not likely to have been the only inspiration. The dancers’ forms, thinly clad in unitards toned to their flesh colors, displayed the distilled essence of human figural beauty found in Rodin’s sculptures, both the marbles and the contorted bronze sufferers on his massive Gates of Hell.

And it was impossible not to think of the hallucinatory Rimbaud and his literary travels in hell. Can one gain wisdom through art? Can it teach us to forswear sin and pass up its wages (death, maybe; degradation, surely)? Martha Clarke’s big mirror shows us how easy it is to slip, how far it is to fall, but Rimbaud—in a rare lucid moment—offers some hope. “That is over. Now I know how to salute beauty.” A return to innocence is never possible, but purity we may aspire to. Even in her most horrific images and scenes of degradation, Clarke asserts the existence of their opposites, and her Garden of Earthly Delights offers a salute to the beauty of innocence and to that of the well-aged wisdom that has been purified in hell.

Note: There are two additional performances on June 9; see our calendar for details.