Free Beer

Issue #05: Body Social. Body Political.

What is the meaning, and value, of nudity or nakedness – for these are different things - in contemporary dance work?

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It’s also all anybody talks about. In the case of Phillip Adams BalletLab’s premiere season in March of And All Things Return to Nature, Tomorrow this notion is distracting because a profound and fascinating component of the two works was a vibrating array of cymbals, bells and electronic jams combined in a sort of incorporeal choir to effectively ‘sing a world into being’. But we are talking here about bodies, and for one evening performance of Tomorrow (the second work in the program, choreographed and directed by Phillip Adams) the audience was asked to undress for its duration to “complete the creative vision” of the piece as “a harmonious and utopian experience” (from the bookings website). What is the meaning, and value, of nudity or nakedness – for these are different things – in contemporary dance work? I was one of the (undressed) audience members invited to participate on stage at this performance and in the days afterward I thought a lot about bodies – bodies in groups, conforming and non-conforming bodies – and my own body, alone, and where I’d put it. The experience offers itself up to an application of Susan Foster’s treatment of choreography as “a theorisation of relationships between body and self, gender, desire, individuality, communality, and nationality.”1 The body/ self relationship has been explored by dance historians who, for at least three decades, have mined literary theory to conceive of dances as ‘texts’ that are ‘written’ through or by bodies in various modes of subjectification (‘processes of becoming’, after Foucault, Deleuze and Kristeva).

“Nudity is like calling something ‘Free Beer.’ I always threaten to make people do stuff naked, and I’m all for it, but to me, it’s usually more trouble than it’s worth. If something is swinging around, that’s all anybody looks at.”
— Mark Morris, choreographer

Several videos of Tomorrow have been uploaded to Vimeo – with a clothed audience – that will give readers an idea of the set-up. The five performers whispered invitations to some of us in the front row to undertake various forms of participation on stage. My turn consisted of carrying a bundled rug in my arms onto the stage, led by one of the performers, and lying down on the rug in a circle formation with other unclothed participants and assorted odd-looking objects, as if for an imminent ritual, for the remainder of the show. Canadian critic Suzanne Jaeger has written a useful analysis of nude contemporary dance works, in which she examines John berger’s work in the 1970s on the distinction between nakedness and nudity: to be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude… to be naked is to be without disguise. To be on display is to have the surface of one’s own skin, the hairs of one’s own body, turned into a disguise…Nudity is a form of dress. 2

To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself.

She argues that this distinction can be productively applied to the use of nudity in dance work, and observes “there is a sense in which unclothed dancers are nude rather than naked… their bodies become objects invested with meanings relative to the spectacle of performance. The dancers are also subject to the fantasies and interpretations of the audience as well as the will of the choreographer and artistic director.” 3 But I wasn’t one of the dancers, and my body (as object) had no opportunity to be invested with any meaning for the rest of the audience ‘relative to the spectacle’ – so was I being invited to be nude or to be naked? Does it make a difference? Did it matter to me? Not in any way that I had contemplated before going to the Southbank theatre that night – hell, I didn’t even shave my legs. But I want to explore some of the variations within my experience to fully address this question.

In many ways I operated as a displayed object (nude): I was closely controlled at every point, led to the stage and directed to lie down. Prostrate, I retained no agency, mobility, or even any direct line of vision (earlier I had been instructed to close my eyes). Not only was I not invited to initiate any movement or interaction, I was rendered unable to. On the other hand, there were aspects of undisguised revelation – of nakedness – in my display. It probably goes without saying that my body is not a ‘dancerly’ one and has none of the disguise by way of performative authority that physical type establishes. I was up there as myself, and I distinctly felt that my experience consisted predominantly of sensations from which I could make my own meanings, rather than serving to generate them for those watching me. I became, perhaps predictably when in greater contact with the surfaces around me, hyper-aware of my sensations – once I had adjusted to my position I was very comfortable, there was a nice flow of air over my legs, I stretched my feet against the cool stage floor and noticed the beautiful floodlight, the way it dragged on floating dust above me, making it glow. In this way the work demanded recognition for (rather than a forgetting of) both the commonality of all bodies and the particularity of each.

Finally, there was one part of my encounter that occurred outside of any mode of display, and which links back to the self/body dynamic I referred to earlier. When I had been led to the stage and opened my eyes, I stood facing dancer Rennie McDougall who commenced to speak, quietly only to me, a succession of thoughts occurring to him one after the other. A stream-of-consciousness voicing of mental activity (which is both immaterial in form and the product of bodily events) that seemed to run parallel to the quasi-communicative connection established when two people lock eyes. This was ‘dance’ without movement; the sudden opening of a silent unguarded body into uncontainable speech, casting a being into space.

  1. Susan Foster. ed, Corporealities: Dancing, Knowledge, Culture and Power , New York: routledge, 1996. p xiii.
  2. John berger, Ways of Seeing. New York: Viking Press, 1972. p 54.
  3. Suzanne Jaeger, “Finding a Pedagogical Framework for Dialogue about Nudity and Dance Art”, Journal of Aetic Education- Vol. 43, No. 4, Winter 2009. the epigraph is also used by Jaeger.