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It has happened to me several times: I am in the library and I’m bouncing around the internet and I want to watch a dance film or a YouTube clip of a choreographer/company/dancer. I start watching the piece and it doesn’t take long before someone on the screen is shirtless or totally naked and the aged, friendly librarian walks past and glares, appalled and excited.

Nudity on stage doesn’t bother me, it can be approached in a myriad of ways, both beautiful and worrying. It’s almost expected for a fair amount of flesh to pop up in any progressive or current contemporary dance piece. But South Africa is ultimately a conservative country and I have been brought up in a conservative home and – I don’t want people to peep over my shoulder and see me peeping at nudies on screen. At this point in my life, I am unnecessarily but seriously concerned with what they will think. Especially in the public library of suburban Durban North where I recognize my high school Biology teacher and etcetera. So as soon as a bit of inappropriate skin appears, I close the screen and wait until I get home to watch the piece, which makes me feel weirder about the whole thing.

So lets talk about it. It is interesting when dancers get naked on stage, it can be subversive, humourous, repulsive, exquisite, sexual, totally-not-at-all sexual and almost every other adjective you can think of. Does nudity make a dance piece brave or progressive? No, I don’t think so. I think it still ultimately comes down to choreography, concept, intent and style. But nudity can certainly highlight these things. It can also overshadow these things. For the next few days I am going to write about some pieces that have partial or full nudity in them because bodies are interesting, clothed and unclothed. And there are some works of choreography out there that have truly altered the way I think about bodies and (in turn) humans and humanity. I’ll get to those pieces later.

I am going to begin with a piece that I really did not enjoy watching. Right now, this is feeling like a silly place to start. But let’s go for it anyway. About a year ago, I came across this YouTube video: (Which, let me warn you, is quite violent and possibly disturbing. So if you are a rather sensitive reader maybe skip this one…)

It is the last five minutes of the French choreographer, Angelin Preljocaj’s rendition of the infamous Le Sacre Du Printemps (originally choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky with the score by Igor Stravinsky in 1913). I did not like the extract so much when I first saw it but I chose to write about the piece today because this year it is the 100 year anniversary of the first performance of Le Sacre Du Printemps (or Rite of Spring). I have been perusing the web for the many versions of the Rite of Spring and I have been thinking about what a Big Deal this work is in the western dance canon, so I thought I’d start off the next few posts with this piece.

Almost every major choreographer has made a work to the iconic music of Stravinsky, Preljocaj included. The female dancer is totally naked in the YouTube clip and the half-clothed cast is encircling her, thrashing about intensely and uninterestingly. I felt the extract to have rather weak choreography, seeming to rely on the skinny-snow-white-tiny-breasted-totally-naked woman with well-groomed, inoffensive pubic hair to maintain the viewer’s interest or maybe shock us. When I saw the full-length piece was available on UbuWeb I decided to watch it because I honestly think you cannot judge a piece based on a short extract.

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However whilst watching the 40 minute piece I was vaguely disappointed and somewhat bored. The cast is clearly divided into men vs. women. The women seem to either move seductively or get punished violently because of this. The men tend to play the role of ‘seduced’ but are still powerful and seem to quite simply want to touch as much body as possible. It is a dynamic that (to me) appears simplistic and overplayed. Sex sex sex – yes we know it is there, but can we try make Art About Sex that is perhaps not so dull and angsty?

I am aware of the story behind Rite of Spring being one about virginal sacrifices and ‘primitive’ ideas of fertility and what not, so the sexual theme is natural but it is approached in a manner that does not seem very weighty but rather quite superficial. I remain unconvinced that this piece engages fully with the subtlety of the music, the history and the context of such an interesting heritage. To be fair, the movement vocabulary is not my personal favourite so I was not completely sympathetic. But it was not just the style of movement that bored me – it was the highly unoriginal approach to exposed skin, to nudity and to sex.

This piece seems to approach naked bodies in the way the world wants us comprehend naked bodies, the powers that be in your average society regard nudity and sex as synonymous with heternormative ideals, whiteness, violence, sex and shame. But really – it doesn’t have to be. Bodies are infinitely more complex than that. The bodies on stage had very little to do with what many many bodies engage with like age, pain, humour, oddness, stillness. (But then, this criticism is commonplace when discussing nudity in contemporary dance, as the naked bodies we do see are almost always very fit, beautiful and white).

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Hm. I am being incredibly harsh and cross about the whole thing. I realize Preljocaj is a highly acclaimed choreographer and I cannot make any conclusions about his work or him, as this is the only piece of his that I have seen (although I am curious to watch more of his work). I am aware that I am just a sassy, opinionated young South African cheekily commenting from afar (or I like to think I am) and perhaps my criticism will promote some heated discussion which is always useful and lovely, no?

I will humbly add that probably the most interesting thing about the piece was the opening scene where the women take off their underwear and do a short sequence with the symbolically appropriate white underwear around their ankles. I really truly liked this part. It was also interesting and vaguely frightening to think of these young females hopping about the stage for the remainder of the show with no panties! Such a small gesture made me question my prudish, Victorian reaction that went along the lines of ‘Oh my! They are not wearing any panties!’. My reaction to this small feature of the piece was more interesting than my reaction to the violent and weakly choreographed concluding sequence that showed considerably more skin.

So yes.

Not my favourite choreography but still completely worth watching and engaging and thinking about. Tomorrow I will write on a piece that I truly love and my tone will certainly be less surly and vindicative.

Here is the full-length version, made in 2004. There is some talking in French in the beginning that I’m sure is very interesting if you understand French, which sadly I do not. But the piece begins about five minutes in.

http://ubuweb.com/dance/preljocaj_rite.html

25 thoughts on “Nudity and Dance I: Angelin Preljocaj

  1. Nicola!

    LOVE reading your blog! Makes me very proud to know you and I often share your discoveries with my casts and try and get them more enthusiastic about choreography!

    In relation to this, have you read: Camille Paglia’s ‘Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Neferyiti to Emily Dickinson’? Read it a while ago for research for a piece on sex, the body and haptic communication.

    Hope you’re well!
    xx

  2. I honestly don’t know what to say. It was definitely intriguing and a very strange clip. I’m no choreographer, but if I was I might’ve done things a little bit differently. Because honestly, I felt like I was watching weird sexual seizures at certain points.

  3. Watching bodies move, esp in an unclothed form is a powerful thing on the viewer. I remember going to see butoh dancers many years ago in San Francisco. It changed the whole way I saw my own body. After the performance, I realized I am just sleepwalking in this suit. Never underestimate what our potential is, in spirit or body. Thats what I learned.

    • Thank you for your insights… Butoh is incredible, I have only done one class (in San Francisco actually!) but it really does bring a new sort of knowledge or realization to the body, especially if it is the painstakingly slow sort of butoh because there is so much time to just process the body existing. I’ve been wanting to write about a butoh performance for a while, struggling to find a full-length piece on the web. Anyway, thanks again for reading!

  4. Very interesting post. I am not sure what more to say here. I guess I am still absorbing the content and don’t want to sound too biased or opinionated. I wish we lived in a world where men and women were not made to feel ashamed of their sexuality. Some of these performances would be hard to digest. Not sure if everyone watches it for the sake of art. But I guess it is someone else’s vision and it would not be appropriate for me to comment and judge. Each to his own I guess. So, I would say it is wonderful how nicely you articulated your thoughts about it!

  5. This is a different way of seeing the art of dancing. It’s natural, it’s art, and it’s different. Not everyone can learn to accept it but it should be respected. Thank you for sharing

  6. I’m not a dancer, but an artist, and art has always been here to confront issues and to push the boundaries.
    I can’t say I ‘enjoyed’ watching these dances however they have certainly provoked a response in me. I’m left feeling a little uncomfortable. Not because of the nudity, which, I think is wonderful. As the dancers move their muscles are more defined, their form is pure and made all the more entrancing because of the freedom in which the dancers express their emotion as they dance naked.
    It is more because I feel that there is an uncomfortable truth in the choreography that I am both moved and a little shocked by the dance. I find it a sad truth that sexuality and nakedness can be used as a weapon. The dancers recognise that.
    You may look at my photography and think that it is inappropriate, and that is because appropriacy is in the eye of the beholder, as you mentioned.
    The dancing is art, and is rightly unashamed in the approach taken. It’s an artistic interpretation of sexuality and the fierce driving force that leads to desire. So to me it is uncomfortable to watch, but that’s okay! I don’t think ‘art’ should be pretty and comfortable. Thanks for posting and I shall continue to enjoy reading your blog I am sure!

    • I so appreciate your comment and your view. I agree wholeheartedly that art should push the boundaries. It is so rewarding to hear other views. After watching ballet and contemporary dance for so long and training myself since a young age, my ‘uncomfortable truth’ has recently become stillness in dance as opposed to movement in dance (which is why I so love the other two works by Boris Charmatz and Jerome Bel, which I also wrote about). But of course someone else’s uncomfortable truth may very well lie in this very choreography of Preljocaj. Thank you for reminding me of this and for reading! I will be sure to check out your photography. Thanks again!

  7. I must agree with Annie but also, as a non-dancer (rather, a classical musician), for me nudity in dance is about fascination rather than objectification. Nudity accentuates the primitiveness, athleticism and tactility of the art rather than evoking an intentionally hyper sexual nature. It’s only uncomfortable here because it indicates the vulnerability of the characters.

  8. Problem with nude dance is that there are certain parts of the human anatomy that don’t stop swinging when the music does. The orchestra has to insert an extra plonk. Tony

  9. Interesting post, there’s just one thing you need to know about Preljocaj (and I’m actually talking to those who just watched the short clip you posted) : I remember hearing him say in an emission I saw that he believes a dancer builds his “character” during the whole ballet. That’s why at one point something a bit shocking can happen : the dancer comes at a state where he or she isn’t quite the same as in the beginning and therefore he or she seems to be transcended by what he or she does, even if it is little choreographed. (The part where the chosen one dances was actually meant that way by Nijinski himself : it is supposed to be a moment where the dancer is doing a rather hypnotic dance more than a performance, the strength of the scene is in what he manages to express with his body without making a lot of movements). If you watch Le Songe de Médée by Preljocaj, you’ll see that at the end, whan Médée just killed her children very violently, she almost doesn’t move : you can just feel her pain and madness because the dancer is convinced of it and begins to share Médée’s way of seing things, that’s why it sometimes has a huge impact on the audience.

    Anyway, I personnally didn’t enjoy the piece either for approximatively the same reasons than you but I thought it was important for you to also know this part of Preljocaj’s reflexion : it can explain the parts that are less choreographed (especially in the end) (but not the whole sex-obsession). About nudity, it’s not someting that bothers me, I just take it as another way to express oneself through art.

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