Nudity in dance: 40 years on

Posted: August 24th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Coverage | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Nudity in dance: 40 years on
Benjamin Asriel, left, and Burr Johnson in “Fort Blossom revisited.” (photo: Andrea Mohin/The New York Times)

Benjamin Asriel, left, and Burr Johnson in “Fort Blossom revisited.” (photo: Andrea Mohin/The New York Times)

After reading Alastair Macaulay’s New York Times article Nakedness in Dance, Taken to Extremes, I came across a review of Glen Tetley’s Mutations written in 1970 by Alexander Bland, that husband and wife team of Nigel Gosling and Maude Lloyd who wrote about dance like proud and devoted parents, never sparing in praise but never letting any perceived impropriety or imperfection pass unnoticed. The review comes from a collection called Observer of the Dance 1958-1982, published by Dance Books ( This was the final, fruitful period in Gosling’s life when he was both art and dance critic for The Observer.

Gosling must have liked dogs, as elsewhere in the book he compares the academic critic to a good retriever with the qualities of perseverance, concentration, patience and reliability, whereas the journalist critic is ‘like a hunting dog, alert, active, wide-ranging, with a good nose and a strong voice; he may follow some false scents, but he should keep our interest riveted on the chase…’

Which brings me back to the two articles. Both answer Macaulay’s opening question, ‘How do you react to the look of the naked body on stage?’ and go on to discuss the nature and merits of the work under review. That Macaulay’s subject attracted more attention than his regular reviews is notable, though he is writing about dance in New York, where Anna Halprin’s 1965 Parades and Changes was banned for twenty years for its nudity. One aspect of his article is that acceptance of nudity on the stage has moved to a concentration on genitalia, the ‘dark patch’ that Bland wrote about 42 years ago. It seems a slow progress indeed, especially compared to the development of nudity in the European theatre. What Bland came across in Mutations was for him a revelation, something to be celebrated, whereas Macaulay’s celebration is more tentative, as if revealing a secret.

However, my purpose is not to attempt an in-depth analysis of the approach of two critics to nudity in dance, but simply to offer a preamble to Alexander Bland’s delightful review that I reprint here in full with the permission of the publisher, David Leonard.

Mutations, Nederlands Dans Theater, Sadler’s Wells

Let’s face it fully and frontally, we are in the autumn of modesty. Fig leaves flutter down all around, scattered by the wind of change. Thirty years ago Ninette de Valois was showing the formidable founder of the Sadler’s Wells Theatre, Lilian Baylis, the backcloth for a new ballet. It was promptly censored on the grounds that the stomach of a female statue depicted on it was too large. ‘But it’s no bigger than my own,’ protested de Valois untruthfully. ‘Ah, my dear, but you have had an operation,’ replied Miss Baylis.

What would she have said last week? In her own theatre, in Mutations, a new ballet by Glen Tetley (with films by Hans van Manen), four young men and one young girl of the Netherlands Dans Theater dance naked for minutes in full spotlight, not to mention long film sequences in which one of the performers appeared enormously magnified and slow-motioned as if to prove that he was every inch a genitalman.

It has been widely reported that the effect was perfectly unremarkable and indeed irrelevant. Certainly dancers’ slim bodies suggest Bosch’s ‘Terrestrial Paradise’ rather than a Rubens orgy. But I must make an embarrassing confession. In the nudity field I am an outsider, a freak, perhaps even a ghoul which haunts the law courts where learned men fulminate on sex and censorship. Not only am I likely to be depraved; I probably am depraved already, for I find the spectacle of beautiful naked bodies exciting. Their introduction in this ballet induced a glow of added interest which it was painfully easy to analyse.

I comforted myself afterwards by reflecting that respectable authorities in other fields have admitted similar sensations. Lord Clark has even written that all good nude painting and sculpture is sexually stimulating. Sex assumes many disguises. On the stage we readily admit arousal by crafty costumes, lighting or posture, and I tried hard to think that the lack of all disguise was no more sinful than they. Exactly what is contributed – or lost – by the final fall of brassiere or jock-strap varies a great deal. Apart from the fact that some naked people look more naked than others, nudity can obviously be employed either innocently (as it was here) or for hard-core sensuality. The simple shock of seeing it on the stage at all comes largely from the surprise of finding it out of normal context. In my sheltered life it is still usually confined to bath or bed, but the probable spread of its use in the theatre will soon, alas, deaden its impact. What will be left will be more visual than psychological. From the formal point of view the costumed figure presents an image with a single focal-point – the head. By adding a dark patch in the centre of the image a second visual accent is introduced, and this is something choreographers will have to take into account.

These minor questions apart, nudity is used in this ballet as a stimulating but serious ingredient which completely justifies itself artistically. The scene is a kind of arena (by Nadine Baylis) into which white-clad figures gradually fight their way. Once arrived, the mood changes. A nude figure appears dancing on film, and this is followed by a nice trio for girls, a typical Tetley wrestling match, and some all-in applications of red paint suggesting violence. A couple dance, clad and unclad on screen and stage, to gently variegated electronic sounds by Stockhausen; more join in and the film triplicates, until some mysterious figures in transparent suits sweep the action off stage, leaving the couple – naked and strangely vulnerable – alone as the lights fade.

It is not perhaps the most completely successful ballet in the repertoire – the start is slow and the films not very imaginative – but it is sincere, shapely, rich in those plastic movements in which Tetley excels and works up to a fine climax. It was never trivial or titillating and was extremely well danced by the finely trained and good-looking company.     8.11.70