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.
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).
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.
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.