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Nudity in dance is staging a comeback



Izzac Carroll, 18, prowls around Henry Moore’s reclining Henry Moore’s Fallen Warrior before nimbly springing up on a bench. There, the tall, lean dancer from the tiny northwestern NSW town of Warialda poses like a Greek archer against the tricolour riot of David Bomberg’s The Mud Bath.

A room away, two dancers lock limbs on a plinth in a complicated carnal knot of flesh and sinew under Stanley Spencer’s Double Nude Portrait: The Artist and his Second Wife. Nearby, framed by Herbert Draper’s The Lament for Icarus, four dancers are patiently arranged by a fifth into a human pyramid.

In trios and solos and duets, these seven dancers move through rooms at the Art Gallery of NSW devoted to the private nude, the historical nude, the erotic nude, the modern nude. All naked themselves, they’re here this morning for an “undress rehearsal” for Nude Live, a forthcoming collaboration with AGNSW, Sydney Dance Company and the Sydney Festival inspired by the 100-plus artworks in the gallery’s Nude: Art from the Tate Collection.

Dancers at the Art Gallery of NSW's Nude Live show, with Rodin's The Kiss. Picture: Pedro Greig

Security guards circle nervously as bare buttocks, extravagantly spread legs and floppy genitals hover dangerously close to priceless Picassos and Freuds and Modiglianis. Startled by a leaping boob, an audience member nervously backs into the glass case housing Hans Bellmer’s creepy La Poupee; another hunkers up goggle-eyed to a Francis Bacon triptych as a bare bum closes in.

Unnoticed among the crowd of 150, SDC artistic director Rafael Bonachela makes small, neat notes. For Bonachela, this unorthodox collaboration, featuring dance pieces inspired by masterpieces ranging from Rodin’s The Kiss to Bonnard’s bathing nudes, has been heaven-sent. “For a dancer, the body is the tool for art. I’ve never made a show with nude dancers before … so this is a big step for me.”

In the past year, Sydney audiences have seen two other high-profile displays of nudity in live performance in separate appearances by French artists and choreographers Olivier Dubois and Xavier Le Roy at Redfern’s Carriageworks. Both men are key figures in a charge back to nudity in contemporary dance in recent times, after bare flesh — once prevalent to the point of ubiquity on stage — fell out of fashion.

In its heyday in the 1980s and 90s, particularly in the European contemporary dance scene, nudity was everywhere, it seems. The likes of Jan Fabre, Boris Charmatz, Javier de Frutos, Michael Clark, Bill T. Jones, Jerome Bel and company made boundary-breaching works influenced by performance art and built on earlier onstage innovations seeded by the likes of dancemakers as diverse as Pina Bausch and Hans van Manen, Anna Halprin, Fred Herko, and the Judson Dance Theatre’s postmodern dance revolutionaries of 60s Manhattan.

Going back to Isadora Duncan and her daringly bared breasts at the turn of the previous century, dance has embraced the nude at various stages in its evolution. As The Times’ critic Clive Barnes put it, “dance has always simulated nudity, whether it admits it or no”.

But then, in the late 90s, it started falling out of favour, “becoming boring because at one point, it was more shocking if there were clothes on”, says Anouk van Dijk, director of Chunky Move, a view echoed by Australian Dance Theatre’s Garry Stewart, who says works such as Dubois’s 2012 piece Tragedie — featuring 18 nude performers — emerged after a bare-flesh hiatus because “it was starting to become depoliticised and disempowered through commonplace use of it”.

But of late there’s been something of a resurgence, says Melbourne-based director Lucy Guerin. Prominent works include French-Canadian provocateur Dave St-Pierre’s Un peu de tendresse bordel de merde!, a celebration of simulated sex, spit and frottage that caused a storm at Sadler’s Wells in 2011 (a dance critic was urged to sue after being “assaulted” by a penis during a performance, among other things), John Jasperse’s Fort Blossom Revisited, Belgian bad boy’s Fabre’s highly explicit 24-hour-long Mount Olympus, Lloyd Newson’s John, Ann Liv Young’s Elektra and Mette Ingvartsen’s 7 Pleasures, which “disrupts stereotypes and cliches of nudity and sexuality”, according to Guerin.

Xavier Le Roy's Temporary Title at Sydney's Carriageworks.

Van Dijk sees it as part of a wider sociocultural phenomenon: “the dancing body coming back in nude works [as] building on this celebration of everyone being equal — I think in Europe, over recent years, you see people try to celebrate against all odds, against all the tensions in society, the move to the right wing, they want to show that we take our clothes off and we’re all the same”.

With the return of bare flesh come questions that have accompanied nudity at every turn across the decades: what is its purpose and what does it add to the art? Is it there to lure bums to seats — sex sells, even in high art — or as an essential part of the artistic message? When is a flash justified? Is it too easily tapped as a lazy way to add edginess to work? At what point does it become exploitative of the dancers? How often is it simply responding to fashionable trends and audience expectations in a highly sexualised culture?

These questions are complicated by the fact that nudity in dance comes on a sliding scale, ranging from elegant toplessness in Jiri Kylian’s celebrated Bella Figura to onstage urination, dildos, olives in orifices, simulated sex acts and spurts of bodily fluid in the works of Fabre, Bel, Clark and others.

For Bonachela, context is king here: “the whole thing is always about the why”. It has to be clearly about “what effect and image the choreographer is trying to achieve”, agrees Queensland Ballet’s Li Cunxin. “It has to be about movements of the body to say something, to tell the story, to speak the unspoken word, to project meaning.” If not, “the body becomes the story … and it can be distracting, taking away from what the intention was”.

Un peu de tendresse bordel de merde! by Dave St-Pierre being performed in Avignon, France. Picture: AFP

In dance “it’s beautiful when it’s done well, but it’s really hard to do well”, says van Dijk. It has to be used particularly sparingly in this medium because its presence is far more confronting to audiences than in the visual arts or film due to its unmediated nature, says Stewart.

He adds that it can be used by some uninspired or commercially minded dancemakers — “but not artists of weight” — as a cheap way to try to amplify the street cred and artistic weight of a work. It can also too easily become gratuitous in the wrong hands, says dance historian Michelle Potter, citing a topless duet that sparked a “nipplegate” debate in dance during the Russian National Ballet’s tour of Romeo and Juliet to Australia in 2005.

Aesthetically and practically, it can prove a handicap: critic Deborah Jowitt once quipped that “you can’t choreograph a penis”, while ballet legend Robert Helpmann famously observed that “the trouble with nude dancing is that not everything stops when the music stops”.

Queensland Ballet's Li Cunxin says nudity can be distracting if it's not essential to the narrative. Picture: Adam Armstrong

In a culture that automatically associates nudity with sex, it can also too easily be misconstrued as sexual in dance, says SDC dancer Fiona Jopp. After all, as critic Judith Lynne Hanna notes in her essay on sexuality in dance, “dance and sex both use the same instrument — namely, the human body — and both involve the language of the body’s orientation toward pleasure”.

But used well, the nude body can create a unique sense of intimacy, vulnerability and “transcendence between audience and dancer”, says Force Majeure’s Danielle Micich.

“It adds to the performer in a way nothing else can give you.”

Van Dijk still recalls a visceral 2004 solo piece by Fabre of a female dancer who danced naked on a stage covered with olive oil and “who went through this extraordinary transformation into this beautiful object”.

The powerfully transformative nature of nudity was also a drawcard for French dancemaker Xavier Le Roy. He tells Review that his 2015 work Temporary Title and 1998 solo Self Unfinished dealt “with notions of transformation and questioned what human bodies can [do] and the construction of our perceptions of them”. To Le Roy, nudity is not there “to shock but because it comes as a necessity for the artistic project”. In Temporary Title, for example, it was so the human body could “become something else than human, sometimes closer to animal or to vegetable or to machine”.

To Stewart, who has choreographed nudity in ADT’s Habitus and Devolution, naked flesh can powerfully “remind us of death, of life, of biological processes … it decontextualises people from the cultural and places them in a frame that is more primal. It reveals something essential about being human.”

Nudity in dance — particularly in the works of European contemporary dance figures such as Bel — “is also part of a project of politically stripping dance down from its artifice of performativity and entertainment into a sort of essentialism of the human experience”.

“There is so much inscribed on to the human body in terms of self and identity. For example, when Rodin spoke about The Thinker, he was interested in how thinking could be corporealised, so the gesture of The Thinker, his brow is knitted, he has his chin resting on his hand and so on ... is that whole bodily expression of an internal state, and I think that’s really most evident with the naked body rather than the clothed body,” Stewart says.

To veteran dancer Amy Hollingsworth, who still vividly recalls a performance she gave in Michael Clark Company’s Mmm, dancing to Barbra Streisand’s Send in the Clowns dressed only in a giant brown skater’s muff (in the second part, featuring Clark’s response to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, she was topless in giant knickers and sporting a Hitler moustache), it can be particularly potent in certain roles such as the Chosen Maiden in The Rite of Spring, “because of this role’s sense of sacrifice and literally being given up by your people”.

From left, Anouk Van Dijk, Amy Hollingsworth, David McAllister and Lucy Guerin.

Then there’s the nude body’s continued power as a political object, even in today’s sexualised culture: van Dijk says it can even “be very political to show that you are very at ease with your body because most people aren’t — so you can say that touches on social codes and morals in society and political systems”.

But where is the line drawn? The cultural goalposts have moved dramatically in this aspect. In a 1970 showing at Sadler’s Wells, van Manen and Tetley’s relatively tame nude scenes proved so scandalous that security guards were brought in to protect the dancers after itching powder and crushed glass were found on stage.

Fast forward to the works of Fabre and others that van Dijk says “really explore the wildness of the body in very sexualised images, and because the performers have more reference to early Marina Abramovic works and things like that, they dare to go further now than they did in 1970s, be far more extreme”.

In Fabre’s The Crying Body, dancers urinate and masturbate on stage. In Christopher Williams’s Gobbledygook, male dancers offer close-ups of anuses, while in Keith Hennessy’s Crotch, the performance artist sat naked with a lard-covered groin, sewing his own flesh.

The boundaries around taste and artistic merit are often hazy; as The New York Times’s dance critic Alistair Macaulay notes, there’s “always been a huge overlap between [art and pornography]; you can see scenes of copulation on Greek vases and Indian temples”.

Isadora Duncan daringly bared her breasts at the turn of the previous century. Picture: Getty Images

None of the dancemakers Review spoke to took issues with St-Pierre’s work, for example, despite the furore it caused in London. Often, attitudes to nudity are strongly influenced by culture: Europeans tend to be more laidback than Anglo-Saxons, Bonachela suggests.

But not always, interjects van Dijk, citing the national storm sparked by her use of explicit nudity in her 2007 remake of van Manen’s ­Situation, after it debuted at the Dutch Dance Festival. Van Manen, incidentally, “thought it was great”.

For van Dijk, even the most “ugly”, explicit art can have powerful artistic merit. “Even if the experience of seeing it is not pleasant, it could in the end create something enlightened, about your ideas of what is wrong and right.”

Guerin says “our culture trains us to see the body as a sexual object” but contemporary dance plays a vital role in “examining the body’s relationship to social and political conditions and this sometimes involves nudity”.

“It’s important,” she says, “to keep experimenting and keep exploring these issues as a way of questioning the stereotypes, shame, in­equalities, persecution and concealment ­imposed on contemporary bodies … Dance is one of the best ways to ask these questions.”

For Hollingsworth, “the only times I find things offensive is when I feel the performers are having to do it under duress — and you can smell that a mile off. I believe in free will, that everyone is in charge of their body.”

Yet, for a dancer the naked body is far from titillating, as Javier de Frutos well knows (“Dancing naked is the least sexy thing I’ve ever done,” he has said). Choreographer Mark Morris noted Frutos’s response in Cargo, in which he eschewed nudity, despite using it in his earlier 1986 work Striptease.

In ballet, nudity is fleeting, formal and restrained, corresponding to Kenneth Clark’s definitions of “pure”, classical nudity as opposed to “primal” nakedness in his 1956 book The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form (though Potter says ballet isn’t as free from salaciousness as you think — “the word tutu, for example, comes from French slang for bum”).

In some cases ballet could do with more nakedness rather than less, says The Australian’s dance critic Deborah Jones: “Sometimes it can look very odd, when you have a very erotic pas de deux with 17 layers of tulle swaying between them.”

Bare flesh does make an appearance in works as diverse as Flemming Flindt’s The Triumph of Death for the Royal Danish Ballet (where a nude Flindt was hosed with liquid detergent), to Mats Ek’s Giselle with a briefly nude Albrecht to Alexander Ekman’s Triptych — A Study Of Entertainment.

But perhaps its best-known appearance is in Kylian’s Bella Figura, featuring male and female dancers naked except for long red silk skirts. To the Australian Ballet’s artistic director David McAllister, there is no gratuitousness: “in fact, there is a beautiful sense of it almost desexualising people”.

In Jiri Kylian’s Bella Figura, men and women dance topless in red skirts. Picture: AFP

McAllister brings up an interesting point about the way dance marketing has become increasingly raunchy in the past 15 years in response to an increasingly sexualised culture. His personal guiding rule is “if it can’t be in the show, it can’t be on the poster … otherwise it’s misleading people”.

So, what do dancers think of nudity? You would imagine that most would be fine — incidentally, they are paid a so-called nudity loading for their efforts — but a surprising number admit to discomfort, at least initially. Li still recalls his nerves at going almost completely bare, save for a dance belt, in The Rite of Spring (“I had to imagine I was a wild animal”).

Van Dijk, meanwhile, winces at the memory of being asked to perform nude for the first time at 19 as a young dancer in Rotterdam, but says “it’s like jumping into water with no clothes on — you get used to it”.

Some don’t, as was the case when former AB principal Justine Summers refused to dance in Bella Figura. (She would later say, “I don’t want to be remembered for the tits. I want to be remembered as a dancer.”)

SDC dancer David Mack has taken part in “extreme” performances with the de Frutos company in the past but says he still has times in the studio when he has qualms about baring all, depending on headspace or mood.

Young recruit Carroll says he was “definitely” hesitant when first approached for Nude Live — it seemed premature for only his second ever mainstage show with SDC — but took the approach “that I may as well do it now while my body is still young”.

For male dancers, nudity can trigger anything from body image issues — men, too, sometimes have “fat days”, says Mack — to “a real anxiety around penis size”, as Stewart puts it.

But when it comes to the sexual politics of nudity, female dancers are more likely to be put in potentially awkward situations, McAllister believes: “It can seem more gratuitous … often male choreographers seem to be more interested in talking the girls into getting out of their gear than the boys.”

Micich agrees that choreography tends to still be a “male-driven industry”.

When audiences head to AGNSW to watch the SDC dancers next month, be warned — they might be watching you. “I think there’s always an interesting reaction to observe when people go see a nude show,” says Mack. “We all go through this spectrum of voyeurism, a bit of shame, embarrassment. How long do you look for, and will you be judged for looking?”

Nude Live is at the Art Gallery of NSW from January 7 to 23.

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch's production of Nelken at the Adelaide Festival. Picture: Tony Lewis

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Shane avatarGreg avatarMichael avatarAlexis avatarPeter avatarKym avatarwilliam avatarDavid avatarJohn avatarCharles J avatar


Avatar for Roger

Huh. I guess there will always be an audience who are fixated on seeing dangly-bits on the stage, or the beach. The novelty will wear off and the artists will tire of the, er, exposure. (I wonder how good it will look on one's CV?)

We survived Oh! Calcutta an Number 96 without the sky falling in.

     Just ignore it and it will all pass soon enough.

Avatar for Phil

More tax payers money down the drain and for what?

A chance for some art types to perve at naked people.

It would be cheaper and less intrusive on society to just buy them all a subscription to playboy.

Ask yourself how this would be done if it had to make money or at least break even?

Avatar for Paul

It takes codswallop to new heights of insufferability. Without artistic guidance and support, there are some parts of the anatomy that don't stop with the music. Dear, dear .... only amongst the self congratulatory cognoscenti in Sydney.

Avatar for Dave Wane

If the trend is back to the 1980s and earlier then the current "fashion" of shaved pubic hair presumably will also not be adopted by the dancers.

Au naturel? Let's hope so.

Good memories of " Hair ".

Avatar for Trev

Sounds about as appalling as having to endure a strippergram event. 

Mrs Trev

Avatar for Brian

From the comments below I guess you would all prefer that burkas and burkinis were legislated as compulsory for any women leaving their residence and men wear flowing Arabic robes.  Grow up and appreciate talent. 

Avatar for Greg

Me , my mates and girlfriends are just finishing up a Boozy party at Bondi.

We have all decided to go to the Art Gallery, strip off our clothes and stagger around the place pretending to be artistic!

I'm assuming we won't be arrested given that it's art and all that. 

We'll be there in about an Hour.

Deplorable No. 1

Avatar for Greg

@Greg rats if I had got to this earlier we would have rushed in to cheer you on. Given our age we wouldn't have joined you though.

Avatar for David

Robert Helpmann was correct in his comments on nude dancing. A flopping penis going in one direction whilst the testicles go in another detracts from the gracefulness of ballet. If people want crude nudity there are any number of pole dancing venues or the like available.

Avatar for Alexis

I agree with the amazing and peerless Li Cunxin.  It has to be essential to the narrative, or it becomes exhibitionism and a distraction.  Hopefully, it is going to be relevant and not irreverent.

Charles J