Nakedness in Dance, Taken to Extremes

August 18th, 2012

Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

Benjamin Asriel, left, and Burr Johnson in “Fort Blossom revisited.”

HOW do you react to the look of a naked body onstage? Thirty-four years ago, as part of a friend’s bachelor party, I went to a London strip club with a group of seven other men. We were all in our early 20s; most of them were distinctly upper-crust; some qualified as what the English call chinless wonders and Hooray Henrys.

Unfortunately, the show underwhelmed. Some of our party, good sports, feigned enthusiasm. Not all, though. As the show reached its supposed climax in a fatuously unerotic male-female nude duet, one chap leaned across the table and said, in piercing Bertie Wooster tones: “I say, Leo! Are you getting together a party for the Caledonian Ball this year? Because, if so, I’m frightfully interested.” (The Royal Caledonian Ball is a grand event of traditional Scottish dancing.)

That was the year I became a critic; I had no inkling how much stage nakedness awaited me. In experimental modern dance, it is now a widespread condition. A bigger surprise has been to find that sometimes — infrequently, but sometimes — it succeeds.

And when it does, it changes our perception of muscles and flesh; it plants new meanings and ideas. Its effect is one of drama. Meanwhile the exposure of the unadorned body has even started to alter the world of ballet.

Thirty-four years ago, many must have felt that the big battles about naked bodies onstage had already been fought and won. In 1965 the dancer-choreographer Anna Halprin made “Parades and Changes,” in which a group of people, standing equidistant from one another, slowly removed their clothes. “Indecent exposure!” cried the old guard. “The liberation of the body!” cried others. Further liberation followed. Nudity was a famous component of the late-1960s musicals “Hair” and “Oh! Calcutta!”

Recently, though, several instances of nakedness have extended the frontiers of liberation; the majority of the more advanced examples have featured men. How do you think you would react to the following showings? In 2010, I watched a work by Christopher Williams called “Gobbledygook” at Dance New Amsterdam in which the dancer Adam H. Weinert — nude while other performers remained clad — stood with his back to the audience and bent over, enabling (or obliging) the audience to observe the crack between his buttocks and a rear view of his genitalia.

At the end of “Crotch (all the Joseph Beuys references in the world cannot heal the pain, confusion, regret, cruelty, betrayal, or trauma….),” a 2009-10 solo show by the performance artist Keith Hennessy, he sat naked but with his groin covered in lard. He gathered us, the audience, around him onstage. Pushing a needle with blood-red thread through scars in his own flesh, he sewed the thread through the clothing of the three people in the audience seated nearest him. He then gave lingeringly searching gazes into our eyes.

This June, at the climactic moment of “Pâquerette,” an hourlong duet at the Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn (part of the Queer New York Festival), Cecilia Bengolea and François Chaignaud, after removing what few garments they had been wearing, inserted dildos up their backsides and kept them there for perhaps 10 minutes. The only dance moment of note occurred when, side by side, each held a balance on one foot while using the sole of the raised foot to hold the dildo in place.

Even for those of us who have now seen a great many naked bodies onstage, the bent-over rear view of Mr. Weinert in “Gobbledygook” was something new. It was not, however, a problem. Though I didn’t much admire the work as a whole, that use of nakedness made Mr. Weinert memorably vulnerable.

Also new was Mr. Hennessy sewing himself to others in “Crotch”; I found the show both horrid and haunting — eloquent but creepily manipulative. But Ms. Bengolea and Mr. Chaignaud wielding their dildos in “Pâquerette” were just irksomely coy, along aren’t-we-being-bold-and-don’t-you-love-us-for-it lines. (How I longed for the voice of an English toff to interrupt with “I say, Leo!”)

When I tell friends of these viewings, they inevitably ask: Where is the line between art and pornography? But there’s always been a huge overlap between the two; you can see scenes of copulation on Greek vases and Indian temples. What’s more, many works of art have seemed pornographic without nakedness. Many of us are tempted to talk as if art = good, pornography = bad. Yet that’s wrong too. Much art is poor, while the novels of the Marquis de Sade are pornography taken to a brilliant, horrifying and extraordinary peak.

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