Close-up: Nudity's role in dance laid bare

Nudity in dance 1

Nudity in dance 1 Photo by Alisa Reznick

Nudity in dance 2

Nudity in dance 2

The stage is specific in its dimness; for a moment everything is contained in a single collection of elbows, hips, and fingers — I’m sitting in the back row but can see every pore of the skin on her shoulders as she moves in and out of the light. The delicate muscles of her back arch and contour. 

She turns around, and the audience is faced with something many would find jarring. Like the nine other dancers performing in Compagnie Marie Chouinard’s “Rite of Spring,” she’s topless.

The word naked is not something one would expect to use when recounting a dance piece. After all, it’s difficult to imagine “The Nutcracker” or “Swan Lake” being performed in tutus and bare chests.

But like all art forms, dance is transforming. According to Cheryl Delostrinos, a UW senior and dance major, nudity is not so uncommon in modern work. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

“I’m really surprised if I go to a modern show and I don’t see nudity,” Delostrinos said. “I think that’s only started to occur in the last few years.”

Chouinard’s performance and others like it indisputably blur the line between sexuality and art. In the gray area between strip clubs and fine art, nude dance works create a whole new genre.

Of course, the inclusion of nudity drastically changes a performance. For those outside of the dance world, topless women would more readily be placed in a strip club than on a performance stage. So, what separates nudity in dance from nudity in a strip club?

Gerard Reyes has been a dancer with Chouinard for the last six years. As he explained it, the concept behind the partial nudity is quite simple for company founder and namesake, Marie Chouinard: The body is like a moving sculpture, and you wouldn’t throw a cloak over Venus. Nude work, he said, is a completely different aesthetic.

“Marie has said that she loves the body in movement, and the clothed body is read very differently from the naked one,” Reyes said. “You need to able to appreciate it in all its glory — why cover it when it’s already beautiful the way it is?” 

Reyes said much of Chouinard’s work was influenced by Greek sculpture and mythology — viewing the unclothed body was true to the form.

Of course, such a choice changes the entire nature of the piece. For many, nudity and sexuality are inherently related — and using it in a dance piece makes it, well, sexual.

Nudity can convey a number of different themes. But Reyes thought when it came to dance, there was a certain eroticism regardless of presence, or lack, of clothing.

“In reality, dance is kind of about sex, anyway,” Reyes said. “It very much references sex in our minds because we’re not used to moving in our daily lives the way you see dancers move on stage.”

It’s there, he said, but sexuality isn’t necessarily the point of the piece itself — while the women are topless in the “Rite of Spring,” for example, it’s not the focus of the work. In order to verge on the pornographic, Reyes thought the intent would need to change.

In “Rite of Spring,” Chouinard was exploring more than just sexuality, where the pornographic realm lacks such deeper purpose, he said.

“The women are half naked in our piece, but the topic is not their breasts,” Reyes said. “[Pornography is] without any deeper experience or musing.”

Similarly, for photographer and choreographer Juniper Shuey, the stakes involved in a nude piece are dependent on countless other factors — the person, the lighting, the dancer’s interaction, and everything else that’s happening on stage.

Shuey said he chooses nudity very carefully in his work, as there’s a difference between tasteful nudity and exhibitionism.

“I don’t like when people are naked just for shock value,” Shuey said. “It shouldn’t be about the audience seeing them in that way.”

Shuey said his photography and choreography approach nudity differently. The experiences are inherently separate because dance involves movement.

“In photography, it’s all about the pose whereas if it’s a dance piece, there are ways that you move between positions that could be sexual,” Shuey said. “I think it’s ultimately about the purpose.”

Like Shuey’s photography and choreography, the differences between nude art and nude dance are vast. While one is the emulated form, the other is the rawest form. It’s the reality of the human body without a curtain, and it’s unlike any other art form.

When UW Assistant Dance Professor Jurg Koch began performing in a piece a few years ago, the prospect of being nude on stage was rather daunting.

“I had to trust the choreographer in the making of the choice [of nudity]. I want to understand why I would do it and who I am when I’m out there,” Koch said. “My partner later told me I blushed on my back.”

Koch’s apprehension illustrates an important distinction of performance work that separates it from other art forms — distance.

Ultimately, it’s the distance between the nude person and the viewer that separates dance from other art forms. When it’s performed on stage, that distance is nearly nonexistent. 

“There’s inherent distance [in] oil or marble, it’s not the living person,” Koch said. “There’s much less artistic distance [in dance], and I think that’s what makes a performance so visceral for people.”

But dancers going bare is only a progression of something that’s been happening in dance for a long time. Even classical ballet has historically moved toward progressively showing more skin — like the transition from the long skirt to the tutu. 

Koch thought that even while clothed, much of the purpose of dance is to showcase the movement of the body. Consider the leotard. 

“When you think of ballet, a lot has gone into revealing as much of the body as possible without seeing it nude,” Koch said.

The leotard, fit tightly to the body and covering only the essential, is about as near to nude as one can get without actually being nude. Still, Koch said going completely bare is something else entirely. It conveys sexuality but also vulnerability and intimacy.

Maybe it’s best to think of the leotard like the figure drawing. Both are suggestions to the unclothed body, placeholders of sorts. When presented with the real form, the audience and the performers are faced with their own questions of sexuality and nudity. But instead of viewing the body on a television screen, behind a frame or clothed by a leotard, the form is unmasked. To Reyes, sexuality and dance are as inseparable as nudity and eroticism. So where is the line between sexuality and art?

Perhaps there isn’t one. 

Reach reporter Alisa Reznick at arts@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @AlisaReznick

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