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.
The overlap between art, sex and nakedness was illustrated — superbly, I believe — in an enthralling, but thoroughly strange show in May at New York Live Arts, when the choreographer John Jasperse presented his “Fort Blossom revisited,” a 70-minute reworking of his short 2000 work “Fort Blossom” (whose title referred to a friend’s tree house). Two female dancers wore short dresses throughout; the men, Benjamin Asriel and Burr Johnson, stayed naked. In one episode, Mr. Asriel and Mr. Johnson lay on each other, in profile to us, sandwiching a vinyl inflatable pillow between them, like an air mattress. The men began to move their pelvises in rhythm.
We were watching a deconstruction of anal sex. The peculiar coolness and objectivity of the scene made it compelling, even poetic — and singularly unsensational. After it ended, and they had lain still a long while, they let the air out of the inflatable, as if it had been a condom.
In a slow duet that followed, now with no object between them, the two men moved together with extreme intimacy — yet only once, briefly, brought their naked groins to meet and only once, at a late stage, held each other’s gaze. Clothed, the choreography would have made no great impact. Unclothed, however, the intimacy was often astonishing. One moment of tender cheek-to-cheek contact involved a cheek of one man’s face and a cheek of the other’s buttock.
Yet everything in this work was ambiguous. The men were remarkably relaxed, dispassionate; and the slowness acquired its own cool rhythms. While Mr. Johnson and Mr. Asriel parted their legs, shifted their pelvises, rippled their spines, new contours and alignments of their musculature would emerge. The interest was heightened by their physical disparity. One had more muscular firmness and definition, the other more softness and linear flow. New connections of shapes and lines in abdomen, back, pelvis, thigh, different in each case, emerged continually.
My point is not to single out Mr. Jasperse as a great artist amid a field of awkward experimentation; I have liked other pieces by him much less. I mean simply to show that works of serious art can occur in situations where moral and aesthetic considerations are complex; the effect of good art is to make them only more complex. Among other things, “Fort Blossom revisited” showed how the erotic and the unerotic can coincide bewilderingly. Those movements and positions for the two men: were they sexually hot or cold? Scientifically objective or personally revealing? The answers kept changing.
I‘ve mainly been using the word “naked” rather than “nude.” The art historian Kenneth Clark began his beloved book “The Nude” (1956) with a distinction. “To be naked is to be deprived of our clothes and the word implies some of the embarrassment which most of us feel in that condition,” he wrote. By contrast, the image projected into the mind by the word nude “is not of a huddled and defenceless body, but of a balanced, prosperous and confident body: the body re-formed.”
Clark knew and loved ballet. And I believe that what underlies ballet is the same ideal that underlies the nude. Ballet’s heroes and heroines wear clothing, and yet they deploy lines, positions and phrasing so that they too may project an image of the body as perfectly harmonious and apparently flawless. When you watch a prima ballerina in her tutu, her tights, her point shoes and — more relevant — her arabesques and her fifth positions, you see crucial aspects of the traditional nude. In her, you see the body balanced, prosperous, ideal, radiantly unembarrassed.
This paradox was taken further by Arlene Croce in a 1974 review in “The New Yorker” when, discussing the illusion created by ballet, she wrote, “The arabesque is real, the leg is not.” Anyone who loves ballet will recognize the rightness of this.
Men in some roles — the title role of Balanchine’s “Prodigal Son” is a famous example — have appeared bare-chested and bare-legged. The effect, though, has always been to establish their mortality rather than any ideal qualities.
In the last 20 years, however, there has been a trend for women to expose more skin surface too. In a popular recent ballet, Christopher Wheeldon’s “After the Rain” (2005), danced by New York City Ballet and other companies, the ballerina, her hair loose, wears only leotard and ballet slippers. The French ballerina Sylvie Guillem, during her period as a star of the Royal Ballet in the 1990s and earlier this century, even began to perform parts of her established repertory (notably Act Three of Kenneth MacMillan’s “Manon”) without tights. Such a look emphasizes the individual muscles of thigh and calf.
Is this a big deal? A few paragraphs ago, I was talking about dancers showing us the cracks between their buttocks or deconstructing anal sex. So isn’t it trivial to talk of a ballerina merely baring her thighs and calves? Well, no.
When tights are removed from ballet, the art itself is changed. Ballet, the genre that once recaptured the ideal quality of nudity, becomes instead, in these modern examples, the art of nakedness. This could prove a valuable new departure, but it’s worth considering its implications. The look of the bare leg drastically changes the entire aesthetics of the form. Muscular details of thigh, knee, calf become suddenly distracting. The leg becomes real, the arabesque not.
Ballet, however, is principally a musical form of dancing. It was the former ballet star Robert Helpmann who famously observed the problem with dancing naked: when you stop on the music, not all parts of your anatomy stop at the same time.
In dance, therefore, stage nakedness is likely to remain the domain of experimental modern dance. In particular, it suits slow motion, and those expressive masters of snail-like slowness, the performance duo Eiko and Koma, have often appeared naked (though never in the shows I have attended). Fascinatingly, where it is well deployed, the drama beneath the surface feels far from slow. For now, let’s note that the current extensive use of exposed flesh in dance is opening up new areas of thought and feeling.
By ALASTAIR MACAULAY, with kind permisison of the NYT