February 12, 2003
It's funny in Kansas
Arts and Entertainment
Nude as the news
By Sima Belmar
LAST YEAR DANDELION Dancetheater unveiled Phase I of Undressed, an investigation of naked choreography. Under the direction of Eric Kupers, the cast performed in the buff from lights up to blackout. Now in its second phase, Undressed is moving on to more intellectual concerns and artistic innovation. In a conversation with Kupers and several of his dancers, issues ranging from body image, nakedness as truth or essence, visual culture, and modern dance technique exploded and collided, revealing assumptions, prejudices, and the slippery intersection of life and live art.
The cast of Phase I were the willing lab mice in Kupers's experiment. During their six-month AIRSpace residency at the Jon Sims Center for the Arts, they danced with their bodily anxieties as much as with one another. Kristin Heavey, artistic director of Element Dance Theater and a cast member of Undressed Phases I and II, had a hard time with the feedback sessions that are an integral part of performing at Jon Sims: "I got frustrated when people would say, 'It's really great that you have dancers that don't have perfect bodies.' And I thought, 'What's not perfect about my body?' What's a perfect body?"
Performing Undressed forces the dancer to confront the breakdown between how it feels to dance naked and how it looks from the outside. The naked dancer has to concentrate on executing choreography that was unconsciously part of her or his bag of tricks when clothed. It is this heightened awareness and focus that frees the trained dancer from concerns about jiggling thighs or penis size.
In Judeo-Christian culture, the taboo of nakedness lies in its representation of imperfection, an idea that lends weight to Heavey's concerns. Watching Undressed confronts this taboo, creating a hologram of life before and after the fall. An audience member's expression of delight or distaste over seeing diverse bodies dancing naked collides with the dancer's sensory experience, bringing a fascinating tension to the piece.
Undressed blurs the objectification of the body, allowing new ways of looking at dance. Now that the initial novelty has worn off, Kupers has begun to meet the specific challenges of choreographing for the naked body. Last month he sat down with co-artistic director Kimiko Guthrie and watched a video of Phase I. "We both agreed that [Undressed] needed to go to this place that is sort of nonhuman," Kupers says. So Kupers returned to his choreographic roots to create a world where bodies are seen differently. He took Guthrie's advice and began devising rules for this world, such as "stay away from pop culture references," and of course, "clothes do not exist."
Kupers invited Neil Marcus to join the cast, and the two have begun a video collaboration that will appear as part of the live performances. Marcus has dystonia, a neurological movement disorder that twists his body into "abnormal" postures. But what is abnormal to doctors becomes interesting, unique, and beautiful to artists. Of course, for Marcus it's just himself moving the way he usually does: "I feel that I dance all the time. When people look at me what they see is a product of a hospital. I've had to learn to love my movement."
The video collaboration is powerful, driven by how the two dancers discover ways of moving together with balance, equality, and harmony. For Kupers, Marcus's distinctive movements spastic and sustained by turns opened up choreographic possibilities. "Neil moves with so much necessity and authenticity, it's what I strive for as a dancer," Kupers says. "He got me to move in different ways just from copying how he moves."
Formal dance training has much to do with clothing choice. Whether it's black leotards and pink tights or loose pants and T-shirts, one can trace the history of Western dance technique and performance through its sartorial shifts. How does dancing naked change this history? Kupers and his cast discovered that peeling away layers of clothing freezes the dancer as much as it frees her or him, while creating more opportunities for craft, design, and attention to formal concerns for the serious movement artist. There may be truth here, but it is not a universal one.
"It's a different kind of technique when you're naked. You can't slide in the same way, you can't be supported in the same way," Kupers says. Certainly the traditional notion of line is disrupted by hair, color, shadow, and flesh. Kupers wants to create a dance technique that combines the freedom of Authentic Movement, drum circles, contact improvisation, and energy- or imagery-based forms with the specificity and clarity of modern dance and ballet techniques. Perhaps one day there will be something called the Kupers Technique filed between Cunningham and Limón. Modern and postmodern dance history is a series of rebellions, and dancing naked is nothing if not a revolution.
'Undressed, Phase II' runs Fri/14, March 14, and April 11-13, 8 p.m. (also April 12, 10 p.m.), Jon Sims Center for the Arts, 1519 Mission, S.F. $5-$10 sliding scale. (415) 554-0402.