The body veiled or unveiled is humanity’s most ancient vehicle for creating a language that moves and shapes the world we live in. To whom does this body belong? Does it belong to me or to science, to religion, to the state, to the family or to art institutions and audiences? My body, strong, vulnerable, capable and yet limited, is my canvas to create my works. So, how do I see my naked body? What do I think of nudity in art, dance and performance? It is dangerous to dismiss the body in the raw or nudity within dance. Is it our responsibility as choreographers, dancers and artists to make explicit the body in a world that is manically charged with fear?
When writing about the body and nudity in the context of performance, dance and art, one needs to take into account historical culture, religion, ideology, science and the inherent complexities in these constructed concepts which shift in time yet almost always serve a dominant power structure. Any body politics must also speak about the body’s materiality and its social and discursive construction.
In 2009, having participating in Ibrahim Quarishi’s workshop in Censorship, Sexuality & Extremities in Impulstanz (Vienna), I began to see differences between Europe and Australia with respect to nudity in dance. Nudity is far more present, in workshops, on stage, and in dance generally in Europe when compared with the Australian dance scene. Stripping dance to the bare body itself, removes the unessential. This pricks me awake; it is as if bodies become piercing elements, like a spear. This rupture, stirs feelings through my own body, a body that exists and serves, based on codes and language. But even though history happens in the body, when watching naked bodies before me, that history falls silent and then the incredible happens; the mystery of the ‘bodily present’ becomes explicit, which in turn enables a re-writing of history, ours and future generations to come.
I must admit, I was weary of the ‘hipster nudity’ termed by cynics, a phenomenon that has taken hold of Europe. However, after watching so many different performances, (without judging the works as ‘bad’ or ‘good’) it seems to me that the naked body in dance is linked more to its complex past, history and cultures than to the fads and trends of contemporary Europe.
Nudity in dance can only be subversive when it uses the naked body to question and expose the construction of the body in culture.
The dance works that I viewed had various national origins and different aesthetic and political concerns. They were created by artists coming from different cultures and countries, with sometimes conflicting agendas, antagonistic views of the body or divergent styles. Hence, underlying these differences were the evident reductionism of theatrics and the presence of the bare, naked body.
Which brings me to question; is the body marginalised in our Western culture? And, if so, does this make dance an inherently subversive art form? The marginality of dance itself as an art form in the west, when compared with painting, sculpture, photography, orchestral music, opera, film and literature, suggests this is so. In Western culture, the fact that the ‘classical body and the youthful body’ are still revered (Ballet & Modern Dance), suggests that the use of the body in dance itself is not transgressive.
Nudity in dance can therefore only be subversive when it uses the naked body to question and expose the construction of the body in the culture. By doing this, dance can then draw attention to itself as an art form, a medium able to provoke powerful change.
One cannot also discuss body politics without raising the implications for a feminist body politics, for dance, performance art, live art and other body arts discipline. The naked body in dance therefore is able to provide a radical site for cultural and feminist politics. Thus, nudity in dance can attempt to question the identities of the gendered bodies as being socially inscribed and discursively produced.
Dancers, choreographers and cultural curators can engage in the challenging task that questions origins and ideological functions of nudity in art and in dance and work towards a nonpatriarchal expression of gender and the body. As Merleau-Ponty suggests in ‘The Phenomenology of Perception on the body in its sexual being’, the body is a ‘historical idea’ and not a natural phenomenon as such. Such strategies for intervention challenge representation and can address the construction of gender in the work itself.
The emergence of contemporary choreographers, whose work denies theatrics, brings them closer to the art form of performance art, where on stage we see the ‘explicit body’. This makes a new dance emerge, one that marks the body as an open wound and complicates dance as problematic.
In the 1960s, the American avant-garde dance movement led by innovators such as Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton and Trisha Brown (just to name a few), had reclaimed the dancing body as utopian and a democratic process. Today, choreographers such as Jerome Bel, Boris Charmatz, La Ribot and Meg Stuart, insist on the presence of the body, the explicit body in its raw naked flesh which is open, marked and consumed, reflecting the current times we live in.
Amelia Jones (ed), The Feminism And Visual Culture Reader, Routledge, 2005
Lea Vergine, Body Art And Performance – The Body as Language, Skira Editore S.p.A, 2007
Andre Lepecki, Skin Body and Presence in Contemporary European Choreography.
‘Dancing the sublime’ Raimund Hoghe in conversation with Bonnie Marranhca. PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, May/2010.
A.D Coleman, Critical Focus – Photography in the International Image Community, Nazraeli Press,1996
Jo Butterworth and Liesbeth Wildschut (eds), Contemporary Choreography A Critical Reader, Routledge Press, 2009