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By Laura Cappelle, Zachary Whittenburg
What goes into a choreographer’s decision to use nudity onstage?
Photos from top left, clockwise: Ekman's Triptych, by courtesy Ekman; Bell's Beautiful Beast, by Jubal Battisti, courtesy Bell; Chouinard's bODY_reMIX, by Marie Chouinard, courtesy Chouinard; Bokaer's Filter, courtesy Bokaer.
Seeing dancers perform naked can be shocking, exciting and uncomfortable. Yet onstage nudity can also showcase the body beautifully, revealing the mechanics of movement in a whole new way. Dance Magazine writers Laura Cappelle and Zachary Whittenburg spoke to several top dancemakers about why and how they use the naked body in their work. While for some it requires serious deliberation and justification, others see nudity as just another tool in their artistic arsenal.
In dance, there’s default conservatism, particularly in forms whose origins are in court dancing and performing for royalty. It’s a paradox because this art form is so physical, so dependent on the body. When I think about dance’s development, in the 1960s in particular, about Anna Halprin, about works whose aims were to reclaim a feminine body, or a social body, I do think it has been a progressive project over time.
Very little of my work employs nudity, but I have a background in visual art, so I have different perspectives on it. I did a piece, NUDEDESCENDANCE, on Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. It’s not nudity-as-graphic-statement; it’s about the body disappearing, which is what that painting was about: a disappearance of the figure. I also did a piece on Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. The nudity itself is not what caused a sensation, in that case, but the content: It’s a painting of whores on a street. It’s not the nudity that shocks, but how it’s used.
If the costuming is codified in some way, as in a unitard ballet, it’s usually part of a formal agenda. And it can be a very beautiful aesthetic, a very beautiful agenda. But then one male dancer removes his shirt and he becomes Apollo, you know? [Laughs] The body immediately becomes more narrative when it’s exposed.
No dancer of mine would have a question about performing nude. They are artists. Would you ask a singer, “Are you ready to reach a high note?” or ask an actress, “Are you able to cry?” It’s simply part of the work. The body is our basis. It’s our medium. The flesh brings you back to the body itself. If you dress it with a specific costume, then of course you refer to a specific time in a specific culture. If not, it can be from two thousand years ago, or from the year 4000. There are very few ways of presenting the body that keep it outside of time.
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
In this day and age, when the naked body is constantly used in a sexualized or violent way, contemporary art and dance are some of the few places where we can still encounter it in a different, more neutral form. Art is a form of education. It’s through art that we learn what is beautiful, what is right and wrong. You don’t have a lot of opportunities to compare yourself to other bodies, and you can recognize yourself and your scars in others. I admire people who use the naked body to make a statement about humanity.
However, as an Arab, I also try to make work that I can eventually show in the Arab world. Nudity can be illegal or problematic in some countries. In Abu Dhabi, the Shaolin monks I worked with in Sutra had to wear T-shirts because nipples were censored. Because of my heritage, I try to be a bridge between the two worlds, to find ways to make it possible.
I worked for a year on Beautiful Beast, which explored framing and contextualizing the female body in contemporary culture. I kept bringing in costume pieces for one of my dancers to try. One was a black men’s jacket and nothing would work underneath it. She tried it by itself one day and her breasts were falling out of it and it was beautiful. It made sense for the character. Nudity was an extension of the content we were dealing with physically. To push against that would’ve been counterproductive.
Disrobing a dancer allows you to see their innately sculptural qualities, their anatomy, in the way that fine art does those things. I don’t want to close myself off from exploring those things onstage, although it’s always a conversation with the dancer. You have to frame its necessity to the piece. The company was split about my work Nudity; we debated an entire year about performing it just in tights, topless. But we also performed a piece where they all disrobed at the end and there was no debate about that choice. Nudity needs to be justified more in some circumstances, less in others.
I’ve only used nudity once, in Ekman’s Triptych—A Study of Entertainment, for Cullberg Ballet. I wanted to create something like a painting or an old sculpture, so they needed to be naked. It’s a sensitive issue, however, so when I asked them to do it, I actually took off all my clothes myself in the studio. I was freaked out, but I needed to show them that it was okay, and how I wanted to use it.
I plan to incorporate nudity more in the future; maybe I needed a certain maturity. I find nudity fascinating, and it’s sad that it’s so taboo, because it questions our whole existence. My goal is to make a piece where the audience thinks: Why are we even wearing clothes?
A Dancer’s Perspective: Kathleen Jewett of Shen Wei Dance Arts
The first time I was topless onstage, in a piece called Near the Terrace, I had about 10 relatives in the first couple of rows. My grandmother and great-aunts were there. It became a reality during tech rehearsal with crew members and the lighting designer: “Oh, wow. People are going to see my breasts.” Seeing how comfortable and professional everyone else was helped…although I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t self-conscious. I was concerned that my breasts weren’t big enough, that my body wasn’t perfect.
I have turned down work with other artists who wanted me nude because I wasn’t sure why they were making the decision to show nude bodies. Very plainly, Shen Wei tells us, “The human body is beautiful. You are beautiful.”
Over the years I’ve gotten used to being topless onstage where there’s a fourth wall. But in site-specific work, it’s very raw, very real. You are just you, a couple feet away from the audience. I’ve really had to go, “Here I am, world! This is my body. This is me.”
Left: Kathleen Jewett in Collective Measures. Photo courtesy SWDA.
Sometimes we practice movement without clothing to find out how skin-on-skin or skin-on-floors will affect it. You have to troubleshoot the mechanics. “Can I slide, or will I stick after just moving an inch?”
Putting yourself in positions of vulnerability can be very empowering. You learn to recognize your insecurities and fears. All of the details and qualities we as performers work on every day come out more forcefully when the viewer can see the muscles working, the folding and unfolding of the bones, the heart pumping and the color of the skin as your temperature rises.
But once I’m performing, there are so many things to concern myself with besides what I look like, I can forget that I’m naked.
Photos of choreographers from top: Steve Benisty, Courtesy Bokaer; Koen Broos, Courtesy Cherkaoui; Karine Patry, Courtesy Chouinard; Genna Baroni, Courtesy Bell