Notebook: Revaluing the shock value of nudity in dance

By Gillian Jakab, For the Daily
Published October 11, 2013

Walking through the library halls to the Duderstadt Video Center on North Campus, we were warned by signs that there would be “nudity” in the evening’s performance. I got into my nudity-viewing mindset, which usually involves putting on my “this-is-totally-normal” face.

“Masturbation and sex and de-robing — why’s it always masturbation and sex and de-robing when people hear queer? Well, it is fun,” Thomas DeFrantz, the director of SLIPPAGE, an interdisciplinary research and performance collective, would protest jokingly throughout the performance as he stripped down to his underwear once again.

He was upstaged by his fellow male dancer, who did not stop at his underwear, and proceeded to wag his hips in a proud motion baring all he had to show. “Theoryography 4.5: We queer (still) here” is a multi-media dance performance studded with these periods of dialogue, proclamation and reaction, in which the dancers read audience contributions (“write something that’s queer” we were prompted) from index cards, and express them through movement and adlib.

In contrast to these interludes of full-frontal improvisation that tested my “this-is-totally-normal” face, Gina Kohler, one of the SLIPPAGE members, danced bare-skinned as a choreographic choice. She performed an excerpt of her piece “dream (factories),” which began with Kohler sitting on a sheet of mirror — back facing the audience — and slowly pouring a series of beakers filled with wine-colored liquid down her body. The effect was both gory and gorgeous. The tone changed instantly when Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” began to play, and two other dancers joined Kohler holding pompoms and dancing like divas. The action went from a meditative, abstract performance art piece to a wild dance party that displayed Kohler’s wine-stained skin as she boogied her naked body.

From the pages of the Daily to The New York Times, a lot of ink has flowed on the topic of nudity in dance. The consensus among critics seems to be that nudity has a place in modern dance, and in art in general, as long as it comes off as a component that expresses or advances a larger artistic vision — like the wine-stained enthusiast — rather than as just cheap shock value, like the hip-wagging improv.

Alastair Macaulay, the revered dance critic for The New York Times, made this point in a Sunday Magazine feature article last summer headlined “Nakedness in Dance, Taken to Extremes” that sent ripples through the dance criticism world. He complimented pieces in which the naked body is used to highlight the intricacies of “musculature” and to add a dimension of “intimacy” where one may not exist in the choreography alone. He criticized other nude dances as being raunchy for raunchiness’s sake.

A 2009 piece on this topic by former Daily Arts Writer Trina Mannino agreed: “As long as choreographers use (nudity) to enhance or further support their vision — instead of using it as a gimmick — it can be an effective and tasteful way to display the body in its most natural form.”

I appreciate the high-brow view, but I can’t dismiss the shock value of absurdity or raw sexuality in the movement arts simply in the name of generally accepted definitions of good taste. In the example of “Theoryography,” the hip-wagging and pom-pom shaking were equally as powerful in their expression as the more serious and subtle displays of nudity. There’s no escaping the conclusion that “shock value” nudity in performance serves to further the dialogue about personal identity and liberation from norms.

Many are quick to dismiss gaudy displays of the body, judging that it has perhaps crossed the line from art to erotic entertainment or cheap thrill. But consider a choreographed piece in which one of the characters is an erotic dancer by profession. Few would question the appropriateness of even shock value nudity to bring that character to life.

What about night club “dancers” themselves? Do they not play characters, and do those characters not express Macauley’s “intimacy”? Does this mean that, logically, we have to recognize even pole dancing itself as artistic expression worthy of critical acceptance, however low-brow?

Well, look what happened to Burlesque. Once reviled in fine arts circles as the pole dancing of its day, Burlesque has enjoyed a nostalgic revival as a high art form, celebrated in feature films, repertory houses, performance troupes and literature.

But should an image have to be tasteful to have value? Sometimes the message is within the shock itself. So, pole dancing as art? If that’s what it takes to defend complete expressive freedom in the movement arts, then I’d say so.