Shocking Dances of the Past

July 26, 2007

Dance has always had the ability to be suggestive, controversial, and downright sexy. After all, it is about the human body. From the early modern radicalism of Vaslav Nijinsky to the experimental nudity of the ’60s to the ways ballet can take on sexuality in works like Balanchine’s Bugaku, there have been performances that cause audiences to squirm in their seats. Dance Magazine looks back at some of the most outrageously sexual moments in dance history. Talk about shock value!

1912, Paris
L’Apres-Midi d’un Faune (Afternoon of a Faun) premieres with Vaslav Nijinsky performing the lead role in the sexually explicit piece he choreographed for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. The 12-minute ballet, set to Debussy, was like an Egyptian frieze come to life. The minimalist, angular, two-dimensional dancing of the seven maidens and Nijinsky’s faun dramatically defined the choreography’s opposition to classical ballet. The sexuality of the piece reaches its climax when the faun simulates masturbation with the scarf of his favorite maiden. Gaston Calmette, editor of Le Figaro, wrote, “We have had a faun, incontinent, with vile movements of erotic bestiality and gestures of heavy shamelessness.” The negative attention boosted public interest and the show sold out for the remainder of its run.


1926, Paris
At the Folies-Bergere nightclub, American-born performer Josephine Baker performs an exotic dance on a mirror wearing a miniskirt made of 16 bananas. The 20-year-old had arrived in Paris a year earlier to perform in La Revue Negre, and when the show closed she was invited to star in La Folie du Jour. Baker, billed as the “Dark Star,” secured herself a fruitful career. André Levinson wrote that Baker “is an extraordinary creature of simian suppleness—a sinuous idol that enslaves and incites mankind. Thanks to her carnal magnificence and her impulsive vehemence, her unashamed exhibition comes close to pathos.”


1938, Chicago
Katherine Dunham premieres Barrelhouse—A Florida Swamp Shimmy. Inspired by the song “Barrelhouse Blues,” which she first heard in a barbecue shack, Dunham swivels her hips and wears a beaded costume that accentuates each pivot of this flirtatious and raunchy duet. The dance critic Walter Terry wrote, “This is an insinuating, sexy, and delightfully humorous dance which every Dunham fan cherishes.” In 1994 Dunham set Barrelhouse Blues on the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble and the piece remains in their repertoire.


1963, New York
George Balanchine creates Bugaku, a dance about ritualized seduction, for Allegra Kent and Edward Villella. The name and stylized choreography derive from Japanese dance rituals, which act as a foil to western gender roles. Kent plays what Robert Gottlieb in his biography on Balanchine calls a “delicate-erotic bride,” and Villella plays the dominant, macho male. Anna Kisselgoff remarked that Balanchine “seems to have derived his inspiration for the pas de deux from Japanese pornographic prints.”


1965, Stockholm
Anna Halprin premieres Parades and Changes. Two years later, the dance debuts in New York City. The performers walk through the aisles of the auditorium to the stage, stand in line facing the audience, take off all of their clothes, wrap themselves in brown paper, and roll into the orchestra pit—all in slow motion. The New York Times dubbed the group “the no-pants dancers from San Francisco.” The New York premiere of the show was the first time nudity appeared on a major American stage. Along with slams by the critics, a warrant was issued for Halprin’s arrest.


1965, New York
Robert Morris, a minimalist sculptor, creates a theatrical work called Waterman Switch at Judson Memorial Church. The piece begins with large rocks rolling across the stage. Then, Morris and Yvonne Rainer, completely nude and locked in an embrace, inch their way across parallel beams while Lucinda Childs circles the stage. Because of this performance, Judson was nearly ousted from the American Baptist Convention. The previous year, Morris had premiered Site. The dance began with large white planks of wood in the space, and as Morris removed the wood he revealed Carolee Schneemann, nude and reclining on a white makeshift couch, a living version of Manet’s Olympia.


1967, Chicago Robert Joffrey’s
combines hard rock music, intense lighting, and images on a large screen in what was described as a “psychedelic trip ballet.” The male dancer strips his way to the stage until he is in nothing but briefs. He and his partner, the goddess Astarte, engage in sexual gyrations that are projected onto the screen. Critic Marcia Siegel wrote, “Each one, separately, reaches a climax that is expressed in destructive fury. Each one, in a sense, rapes the other.” Two years later, Astarte made the cover of Time magazine.


1970, Sullins College, VA
Twyla Tharp plays with the differences between movement clothed and naked in the solo PYMFFYPPMFYNM YPF (a title taken from a newspaper misprint). Graciela Figueroa was to dance the piece once topless, and a second time bottomless. Sullins College threatened to cancel the performance. After giving the audience the opportunity to leave, Tharp insists Figueroa perform the piece in its entirety. The audience stays to see what all the fuss was about.


1971, Washington, D.C.
The premiere of Erick Hawkins’ work, Angels of the Inmost Heaven, at George Washington University is cancelled by the National Park Service Board owing to the absence of costumes. This was to be the first event of a residency sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts. Alan Kriegsman wrote in The Washington Post, “Park officialdom asserted its duty to protect taxpayers from a grave moral trauma—the disgusting sight of a naked human breast. Woe betide us if ever someone decides that trees have private parts—they’ll all be decked out in doilies overnight.”


1975, American Dance Festival at Connecticut College Pilobolus Dance Theater
premieres Untitled, which has a few tricks up its sleeves—or skirts. Two dancers, Martha Clarke and Alison Chase, clad in Victorian attire, grow into 10-foot-tall giants, and a nude Robby Barnett and Moses Pendleton emerge from under their skirts. The women then try to recapture the men.


1981, Montreal Marie Chouinard
, queen of Canadian avant-garde, takes audience participation to a new level when she performs Danseuse-performeuse cherche amoureux ou amoureuse pour la nuit du 1er juin (Dancer-performer Seeks Male or Female Lover for the Night of June 1). During the piece, she lives up to the dance’s title and auctions herself off. Only a year earlier she was banned from the Art Gallery of Ontario for performing Petite danse sans nom, a dance that included urinating on the stage.


2001, San Francisco Remy Charlip
—artist, writer, choreographer, designer, teacher, and former dancer with Merce Cunningham’s company—presents A Moveable Feast at the Lesbian and Gay Dance Festival. Dressed in a yellow raincoat and hat, a 71-year-old Charlip is lifted high above the crowd and carried along by a dozen muscular naked men to Wagner’s “Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde.