I’ll never forget the first time I saw nude dancers—okay, nearly nude. I was thirteen, the ballet was The Rite of Spring, and in this production the men were wearing only flesh-tone bikinis. The effect of about twenty men dancing in nothing but their skivvies to the primal beat of Stravinsky’s score made a huge impression on me—and on my mother. Afterwards, Mom confessed that she had considered covering my eyes during the performance (she didn’t; thanks, Mom). Since then, I have seen many a naked or partially exposed dancer. Yet I still find myself grappling with the question of what a nude body onstage means (outside of strip bars). In spite of my best intentions, I am definitely a product of my culture. Nudity=sex.
This June, Montreal’s L’Agora de la Danse closed its 2003–4 season with Daniel Léveillé’s La Pudeur des Icebergs. Pre-show publicity certainly didn’t miss the fact that the six dancers would be nude for the entire show, but the title suggested that sexuality would not be the main course. For one, “pudeur” means “a sense of modesty, decency, or propriety.” As for the rest, when was the last time you considered icebergs erotic? Thanks to 9 1/2 Weeks, the only ice I think of as sexy comes in trays, not in frozen flotillas in the north Atlantic.
So why the heck then, before and during the show, was I wrestling with the same tired old equation? When I finally read reviews of Léveillé’s previous effort—Amour, Acide et Noix, which also featured nude dancers—I discovered other critics also couldn’t help mentioning the nudity and sex connection in some fashion. So it wasn’t just me and my limited imagination. That was a relief.
For other reasons, though, the question of exactly where nudity, indecency and pornography intersect has been on my mind of late. Every so often, the debate over exposed skin—how much, when and where—becomes a media obsession. The most recent instance was Janet Jackson’s infamous wardrobe malfunction during the Super Bowl halftime show. A few months later, a Tennessee garden shop made headlines for covering the breasts and genitalia of its innocuous classical statuary—the kind you find in every other Greek or Italian restaurant. The episode was an ironic reminder that prior to 9/11, US Attorney General John Ashcroft’s biggest foe was an uncovered tit in the Great Hall of the Justice Department.
Closer to home, the print edition of this magazine had its own run-in with the morality police, courtesy of Barnes & Noble. Vanessa Beecroft’s photograph of nude women in the Winter 2003 issue was deemed indecent enough to warrant pulling the issue from the newsstand and wrapping it in plastic, lest any underage literary lover get an eyeful of the forbidden. Meanwhile, the Maxims of the magazine world, featuring scantily clad starlets in come-hither poses, stood proudly unsheathed in slot. To me, such magazines, which avoid full nudity while getting as close to it as possible, seem closer to porn than serious-minded art that has full nudity but no titillating agenda.
Back here in Montreal, few people get their panties in a knot about some exposed skin. Montrealers (at least the ones I know) simultaneously giggle and sneer when American tourists of the “family values” sort express their disgust and disbelief at the sex shops on St. Catherine, a well-trodden tourist street. They’re horrified that souvenir shops and the Gap are within spitting distance of places like Le Château du Sexe. The locals don’t care, though. A few years ago on a chilly May morning, 2,500 Montrealers turned up downtown at 5 AM to pose, without a stitch of clothing on, for a group shot by photographer Spencer Tunick. Tunick was arrested five times in New York City before being allowed to photograph nonsexual nudity in the city’s public spaces. Although Tunick’s “civic art” precedent had already been set in New York, the Montreal event went off without a hitch in part, no doubt, because of the city’s tolerant attitude toward nudity.
We should be making more such distinctions when considering exposed flesh in art. As Léveillé’s La Pudeur shows, the novelty of genitalia in motion can wear off pretty quickly. Ultimately, the dancepiece is an hour-long cold shower for the libido. If eroticism is missing, so too is a feel-good, “the body is beautiful” message. This is no joyful romp of liberation from constricting clothes and the social codes they represent. The overall effect is more like earnestly considered “pure dance” taken to an austere extreme. Stripped of all sexy accoutrement and suggestive posing, the human body in La Pudeur is shown in its entirety in an almost clinical way: as these dancers unblinkingly stare out at us, we see how the breath, bones, muscles and tendons work in concert underneath the bared skin. At one point, one dancer rubs his body up and down as if noticing it in all its minute detail for the first time.
When the five men and one woman (Frédéric Boivin, Mathieu Campeau, Stéphane Gladyszewski, David Kilburn, Dave St. Pierre and Ivana Milicevic) actually get down to the business of dancing, they do so in an earthbound and straightforward manner, without any fuss. Accompanied by Chopin’s Preludes, turned down to an atypically low volume, the six dancers move with neutral, almost emotionless faces throughout the performance—even when the muffled music turns passionate. Although their bodies often come into contact, there is little attraction of any sort between them. The partnering work is quite utilitarian: in one recurring motif, dancers take turns lifting each other into high seated-chair positions. The lifted partner goes up, but rarely soars, and feet land with an unapologetic thud (like jumps performed solo). Choreographically speaking, La Pudeur lives up to its title, employing a modest, economical vocabulary of movement. Dancers perform squatlike, deep pliés in second position, tours en l’air, karate kicks and floorwork that ends with splayed bodies prone on the ground, all along the straightest of trajectories. Modest, too, is the quantity of steps performed, often at a glacial pace. Léveillé’s dancers often take entire phrases to complete one simple movement, and simply stay put for several counts, giving the audience ample time to scrutinize their bodies.
Yet the emotions of the people onstage remain inscrutable for most of the piece (just as most of the bulk and length of icebergs is hidden underwater). By the end, however, the dancers are not quite so indifferent and unmovable as they first appeared. After the climactic moment when they all pile on top of one another, forming a pinnacle-shaped iceberg, the choreography from the first half is resumed, but with a more aggressive edge. Finally, the need for tenderness and emotional connection enters the picture. In the last moment of the piece, one of the men beseechingly leans into the body of another, who looks down at him, puzzled.
If La Pudeur reveals anything beyond the most intimate of the body’s parts (the site of many conflicting emotions), it is that even so exposed, the body still has depths that remain a secret to others and even to oneself. In an age when “letting it all hang out” both physically and emotionally is more acceptable than ever, we still put up strong defensive walls and daily follow deeply ingrained tracks. But like icebergs, we too break down, even if it takes the human equivalent of an ice age to do so.
Thinking back to my mother and I watching our first Rite of Spring, I remember the thrill of seeing those nearly naked bodies freely in the throes of orgiastic need, expressed in a more profound way than I had ever seen in popular media. Unexpectedly, the hardness and slow thaw of La Pudeur is just as liberating in its own way.