I have been living and working in New York’s downtown dance world for more than 25 years, but it’s only recently that I’ve been confronted with the sight of so many of my peers naked. I’m not crashing dressing rooms after concerts or lurking in the showers at dance or yoga studios. No, I’m talking about an epidemic of naked dance performances where I’m right there in the audience. What’s happening? The movers and shakers of the downtown dance world are now moving and shaking their naked booties on stages all over town. I wonder wistfully if this had been going on 15 years ago whether I’d have been more likely to join in or might even have received some offers to do so. But unlike many dancers today, my vanity and modesty interfere. When I was a teenager in a drab suburb of Boston, little did I think that I’d live among such gloriously uninhibited creatures. In those days my dance idols were Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Ann Miller, and Eleanor Powell. I never saw them naked. I was, however, deliciously unsettled by thoughts of Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds slipping out of their playful-chic ’20s outfits on the soundstage of Singin’ in the Rain to indulge in a little soft shoe in the buff, or, even better, a nude rain-drenched solo by Kelly to the title song. I now delight in imagining Fred and Ginger performing “Never Gonna Dance,” their brilliant, melancholy dance from Swing Time, naked as jaybirds. The light fantastic indeed. Could I have still watched what they were doing or am I too crass? I’m contemplating all this while watching the latter day Freds and Gingers of experimental dance parade their entire naked selves before me on a regular basis. I can’t say I have any objections.
Near-nudity pervades our culture, of course, and the strange nudity of the engorged, buffed, plucked, and polished gym body is everywhere to be seen for a small fee. It seems to support the existence of the Internet, in fact. But this kind of nudity is like a form of erotic technology with surgically enlarged body parts designed to lure. These people don’t seem naked but armored. Full, unenhanced nudity is usually reserved for sex, hygiene, some beaches, some kinds of friendship, and now, experimental dance. But what has this new emphasis on the unclothed brought with it? What does it reveal beyond skin, genitals, pores, and flesh? Quite a lot, as it turns out.
Dancing and nudity have a long-standing, if edgy relationship. Dancers as strippers, dancers as prostitutes, dancers as chorus girls, dancers as mistresses of the Tsars—the titillating aspects of the form have long been associated with women and have been viewed with suspicion and sometimes scorn by practitioners of high art dance. We don’t dance with poles. One of Isadora Duncan’s first actions was to toss away her corset. Ted Shawn claimed some measure of equal ground with his scantily clad beefcake numbers that entertained a genteel, tea-drinking, largely female audience.
But nudity was still largely offstage. In the ’60s we had nudity in performance for egalitarian reasons, in the ’70s we had it as a symbol of sexual liberation, and in the ’80s and ’90s it was political—laden with concerns about gender, disease, oppression, and identity. The golden Halston jockstraps and the glittering bandeaux worn by the Graham company in the ’80s were a glossy alternative to the hairy-toed naked hippies of downtown dance. But what we have now is something quite different from all that.
In the opening sequence of Alain Buffard’s Mauvais Genre at Danspace Project in New York this season, a cast of well-known, even legendary, downtown dancers entered the pristine sanctuary at St. Mark’s Church stark naked, never hurrying, one at a time and stood facing the audience behind hanging neon tubes that obscured their faces. They turned their brilliantly lit bodies slowly like meat on vertical spits for many minutes and allowed us to drink in their every nook and cranny. Most of them were middle-aged; all were beautiful. This wasn’t glumly neutral or punchily political or smugly liberated. It was electric. These people’s bodies became like their faces. I felt I was looking into their eyes except that I couldn’t see their eyes. I was looking into their navels and clefts and orifices. I’d felt something like this before at Danspace, in Daniel Léveillé’s La pudeur des icebergs when five dancers from Montreal, as white and bare as the interior of the church itself, moved with unblinking serenity and flapping organs through stark gut-busting choreography. Léveillé left no throbbing blue-veined sinew unturned and I felt close to these corrugated people in a pungent way that was new to me. Their nudity took me in.
In Jasperse’s Fort Blossom, Jasperse and Miguel Gutierrez shared an extraordinary duet which they began by propelling themselves naked and prone across the floor of The Kitchen in Chelsea. Their labored, squeaking progress brought them together for an adagio wrestling duet during which they inserted an inflatable pillow between their pressed-together bodies. I thought of penguin parents passing a single unwieldy egg between their loins.
Gutierrez learned about the power of the unclad body onstage at John Jasperse’s knee (and parts thereabouts) as a longtime member of his company. He has gone on to make his own work and was memorably divested of garments in his solo Retrospective Exhibitionist at Dance Theater Workshop. His nakedness was like one of his costumes that he changed into and out of. No designer other than the hypothetical almighty could have bettered it. His paradigm-busting body contains such contradictory dance styles as spandex-jazz; head-lolling release; mechanical postmodern; and his own flinging, hip-grinding style. He dances like the love-child of Chita Rivera and Yvonne Rainer, and his nudity made each miraculous shift of style breathtakingly clear.
Three other shows dared broach the sexually suggestive aspects of nudity—which in some way is the last frontier for nudity in experimental dance. We’ve spent so long distancing ourselves from the prurient and finding tasteful, elevated reasons for nudity that we’ve lost something. Much of the nudity I see today is not archly beautiful or sculptural or didactic as it was years back. It’s real, it’s raw, and it’s hot. And why not? Experimental dance shouldn’t have taboos, right? Roseanne Spradlin often costumes both the men and women in her work in strappy garter belts, vintage bras, girdles, spandex, and rubber. These dancers work the waterfront. Walter Dundervill, a downtown version of Gene Kelly if ever there was one, is clad in a red brassiere and nothing else. He’s as relaxed in his getup as Tom Sawyer in overalls. At one point, the lush and sinister Tasha Taylor, clad only in a garter belt and shredded stockings, swoops in, scoops him up in her arms and appears to suckle him like an infant.
This is somehow both icky and sweet. I don’t know how they achieve this. Despite all the gear and the full frontal displays there is something innocent, even pure, about Spradlin’s work. Her paradoxes would not resonate without her dancers’ nakedness.
Ann Liv Young’s Michael at Dance Theater Workshop wrought havoc with all kinds of low-life expectations about sex. A man’s genitals were tied with a ribbon to furniture, naked women executed ersatz humping movements near a ladder-back chair, and there was a lot of gleefully trashy behavior, much of it in the nude. It’s no more shocking than an episode of The Tracey Ullman Show. But it does skewer both high art expectations and the aesthetic discretion once so cherished in experimental dance of the past.
Finally, Jeremy Wade’s Glory takes us to the original nude couple—Adam and Eve. Or so it seemed to me. Like Spradlin, Wade makes no attempt to hide or avoid sexual associations. Sexy and elfin with a glint of madness in his eyes and the loins of a bulldog, Wade cuts a feral and filigree figure. He and his partner Jessica Hill devour each other with suffocating minutes-long kisses while hurling themselves pell mell across the floor of Dance Theater Workshop. Shards of half-remembered social dances bubble up briefly from their bones, which are otherwise engaged in jackhammer vibration. This is a far cry from the sculptural nudity of yesteryear or the wholesome nudity of the Woodstock era. Nothing is excluded and nothing is self-congratulatory. It’s also virtuosic in an entirely fresh way. Wade and his peers have ripped off the husks to get at the corn. There is much that can be done with corn. I don’t know what’s next, but I’ll take another ear.
David Parker is the artistic director of David Parker and The Bang Group, a contemporary dance company that generally performs fully-dressed throughout the U.S. and Europe.