Maria Tsouvala* and Katia Savrami**

Tsouvala Picture1

The power of naked

Naked or nude, the human body has been a source of creative inspiration in all forms of art, from painting and sculpture to theatre, film, performance art and body art, digital art and live political activism. The public display of the live, bare body with its multiple and complex associations has a powerful impact on our awareness of the self and otherness. Recently, we have been experiencing an explosion of global naked protests in which the body “is strategically employed as a mode of social and political action” (Lunceford x). Many activists have stripped themselves of clothing to draw attention to the vulnerability and power of the body in the social system we live in.

An activist protest occurred in May 2013, in the centre of Athens, Greece. “No God, No Master” was written across the chest of a blond woman from the “Femen” group, who posed in front of the Erechtheion Temple on the Acropolis, as a Caryatid of modern times. This incident brings to mind Isadora Duncan photographed in the Parthenon by Edward Steichen in 1903, or Mona Paiva, dancer in the Opéra Comique, in Paris, who posed in the same place for Nelly in 1927, followed, two years later, by the Hungarian dancer Nikolska. The site of these incidents also brings to mind that nudity has been an integral part in the arts for thousands of years, as an expression of the freedom of humankind.

Nikolska at the Parthenon, 1929. Photo: Nelly
Nikolska at the Parthenon, 1929. Photo: Nelly

Beyond the boundaries of political activism, an explosion of nakedness has also been present in the performing arts, and particularly in dance. In A Brief History of Nakedness, Philipp Carr-Gomm argues that: “Nakedness in ballet may still be rare, but when it comes to contemporary dance there have been many more naked performances in dance over the last fifty years than there have been in the theatre” (203).

But how can we interpret this increasing display of bare bodies in contemporary dance? From an aesthetic-phenomenological perspective, the dancing body resists the traditional Western dualism of body/mind and opens up a new conceptual space for the exploration of the embodied basis of being (Albright 2011). By returning to the body, free from the symbolism of clothing and of moral codes, dancers and choreographers seem to be exploring the sense of being human.

And how do different audiences perceive the sense of intimacy that nudity attaches to performance? Although nudity signifies our purest form of existence, it remains a controversial issue in the arts and in society at large.  As Judith Lynne Hanna notes in her essay on sexuality in dance: “Dance and sex both use the same instrument—namely, the human body—and both involve the language of the body’s orientation toward pleasure. Thus dance and sex may be conceived as inseparable even when sexual exploration is unintended” (212).

Despite the public discomfort with the inevitable sexualization of nudity, the living body in dance, like in no other art, can change the way we think about the relation between dance and the political (Franko 2007). The word political applies to dance pieces that deal with questions of power, hierarchies, law and justice, inclusions and exclusions.

Nudity and dance in the 20th century

Tracing the history of the naked body in the past century, Isadora Duncan, in an era still dominated by Victorian morals, dared to expose her breasts in some of her dances. But her idea to combine the body as flesh with the inner symbolic notion of the soul, shifted the image of the female body away from eroticism. “What mattered in Isadora’s Hellenic dances,” explains Ann Daly, “was not the Greek themes or the gauzy costumes but the uninhibited vitality, the sense of a glorious nakedness about to be affirmed, not only in the rituals of lovers but in every part of life” (9). The reference to Greece, as a synonym for classicism, had the power to “purify” taboos associated with the naked body as well as womanhood.

Expressionist dance pioneer, Rudolf von Laban also explored the naked body as a site and source for liberation in the utopic society of Monte Verità in Ascona (1913-1918). Numerous paintings as well as photographs of thousands of people featuring naked in an ecstatic dance, denote the central position of the body to the creation of a modern, liberated identity. By the time the Dadaist and Surrealist movements exploded in Europe, Laban’s women dancers were performing quite frequently in the soirées of Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich.

Rudolf von Laban and his dancers, Ascona, 1914. Photo: Johann Adam Maisenbach
Rudolf von Laban and his dancers, Ascona, 1914. 
Photo: Johann Adam Maisenbach

The potential of the naked body to signify primal emotion played a major role against social and sexual conventions in German Expressionism as well as in Ausdruckstanz. Although expressionist dance was denigrated by the Nazi regime as a degenerate art, the naked body was nonetheless exploited as a tool of propaganda. Leni Riefenstahl in Olympia (1938), the documentary for the Berlin Olympics, often shows close-ups of naked dancers (male and female). They indicate her appreciation of the human body, but also illustrate the Nazi notion of the perfect Aryan body, associated with the Greek classical ideal of beauty.

By the mid-20th century, Mary Wigman, Doris Humphrey, Martha Graham and Merce Cunnigham had developed virtuosity and formalism in their dances, often using decorative sets and costumes. Despite the significance of their work in the renovation of modern dance, they were skeptical about choreography which had an element of nudity. At a time when the entertainment industry had reduced the body to a fetish or commodity, they sought to establish dance as a form of “noble” art.

In the 1960s, the radical shift from modernism to postmodernism in the arts marked a return to the body—both in the physical and the performative sense. “The body, which previously had to be veiled to confirm to the Modernist regime of meaning and value,” explains Amelia Jones, “has more and more aggressively surfaced during this period as a locus of the self and the site where the public domain meets the private, where the social is negotiated, produced and made sense of” (22).

In the postmodern era, choreographers, performance artists and visual artists, by returning to their own—sometimes unclothed—bodies, brought to the foreground the earlier repressed conception of selfhood. Numerous choreographers relied on their physical presence, without letting it become a mere object for the viewer. According to Ramsey Burt, the leaders of the Judson Dance Theater created work that aimed at transcending the narcissistic voyeuristic duality of doer and looker (Burt 87).

In 1965, Anne Halprin’s legendary postmodern piece Parades and Changes shook the dance world by challenging conceptions of nudity. Nearly fifty years later, in 2009, we saw a reinterpretation of the piece at the Athens – Epidaurus Festival, in Greece. French choreographer Anne Collod worked with Halprin and Morton Subotnick, who had composed the score, to revive the piece. While at the beginning of the performance, our gaze was captured by the flesh of the dancers, shortly afterwards we were not even noticing that they were naked.

The premier of Parades and Changes in Sweden, where people were accustomed to nudity, hardly caused a negative reaction. But, in 1967, on-stage nudity caused Halprin’s arrest by New York police. In a recent interview Halprin says: “It was so radical when I first did it,” adding, however, “now nudity in dance is so ordinary. Sometimes I wish the dancers would put their clothes back on if they don’t have a good reason to be naked” (Hunt 1). Notwithstanding Halprin’s arrest, naked dance was here to stay, and New York became one of the most significant centers for the genre,  as Carr-Gomm writes; further noting that within a few years, nude performers were being increasingly seen on stage (204).

In 1970, Yvonne Rainer participated in the “People’s Flag Show,” an anti-war protest exhibition, with a version of her legendary Trio A (1966). The piece was performed by six naked dancers with American flags tied around their necks. Their naked bodies expressed political concerns, supported by the long equation of nakedness and freedom. Other examples are Steve Paxton’s Satisfying Lover (1967), in which the use of simple walking stripped dance of the unessential, as well as Site (1964), which was created and performed by Robert Morris. While Morris manipulated several large wooden boards, Carolee Schneemann sat motionless throughout the performance, recreating the image and the persona of Edouard Manet’s famous painting of Olympia (1863).

Schneeman, a pioneer of performance art, associated with both the Fluxus movement and Judson Dance Theater, is known for her shocking erotic performances and films. In the Interior Scroll (1975), she slowly extracted a paper scroll from her vagina and started reading it. The text, which was part-poem, part-manifesto, signified that she used her body (mythical or human) to examine female sensuality with the possibility of political and personal liberation from predominantly oppressive social and aesthetic conventions (Toepfer 78).

The sexual revolution of the 1970s did not last long. In the 1980s, the art world was deeply affected by the HIV epidemic and the disembodied politics of the Reagan/Thatcher era. However, American choreographers continue to work under the enduring influence of postmodernism. Some artists expressed issues with reference to their identity (as female, male, heterosexual, homosexual, white, black, etc.) through dance. In Europe, Pina Baucsh incorporated semi-nudity and cross-dressing for men in her legendary work for the Tanztheater Wuppertal, interpreted as a manifesto for a feminist aesthetic. Notable choreographers of the period formed a multidisciplinary context that included text, music, set and costume design, the use of multimedia and technology.

The political ontology of dance

Around the early 1990s, in the context of contemporary dance, particularly in Europe, a recurrence of issues about the body began, which could be traced back to the postmodern experiments of the 1960s. André Lepecki in the beginning of his essay “Skin, Body, and Presence in Contemporary European Choreography” (129) notes that:

The contemporary European dance scene can be qualified by one term: “reduction”—of expansiveness, of the spectacular, of the unessential. Accompanying this reduction in dance is a stripping of the dancing body itself. Naked bodies are ever more present on European stages.

Lepecki further notes that, at the end of the 1990s, audiences in Europe were witnessing the emergence of a new generation of choreographers whose work denied theatrics and brought them closer to performance art. He contextualizes the new developments in the European choreography, by analyzing some distinguished pieces made by French choreographers Jérôme Bel and Boris Charmatz, German choreographer Felix Ruckert and Portuguese choreographer Vera Mantero. Although these artworks may differ in aesthetic agendas, body politics or choreographic styles: “the simultaneous reduction of ‘theatrics’ and the emergence of the body’s naked presence in contemporary European avantgarde dance, complicates what has been, until recently, unproblematically called ‘dance’” (Lepecki 129).

This remark suggests a reconception of dance, defined by the term “conceptual dance.” Today, it is used to describe predominantly the work of Jérôme Bel, Xavier Le Roy, and several other artists. In 1994, Bel presented his first piece, Nom donné par l’ auteur, in which two performers move house objects. His next piece, self-titled Jérôme Bel (1995), is a complete example of deconstructing “theatrics” through performative acts (including its famous urination on stage), self-referential speech acts, citations, and collage.

“No lighting design, no sound system, no costumes, no set. . . This staging of bareness (preceding and echoing the bareness of the dancers) already sets up the scene for a critique of desire within our commodity-oriented culture,” writes Lepecki in his textual analysis of Jérôme Bel. And he continues stating that, the bodies of the four dancers, one man and three women, “are not the ones that may be expected in a dance show. . . . They are ‘normal’ bodies, not slim, not lean, not muscled, not all within the prime of their youth” (130).

Challenging audiences’ views of normative images of the body cannot be separated from the accompanying shift in philosophical approaches to dance. The reading of texts by eminent thinkers of the mid-20th century became a source for the initiators of conceptual dance, who aligned this genre with philosophy in their choreographic texts, legitimizing the status of the choreographer “as author.”

The body stripped bare in the 21st century

Nearly two decades after the emergence of conceptual dance, it seems that there is a new wave of nudity in avant-garde dance performances. Gia Kourlas, in her 2006 review for The New York Times, claims that in many recent performances the skin has practically taken the place of costume. In her view, this resurgence of nudity is not rooted in the sexual liberation of the 1960s or the political defiance of the 1980s. “Instead, choreographers are baring it all as a way to reveal something essential about human experience.”

Angela Conquet, in her article “The Flesh Is Still Weak. So is the Mind,” examines aspects that a naked body can reveal today which a clothed body cannot. And she questions: “So what is it about nudity that provokes such moral panic, especially given the prevalence of (porno)graphic imagery within music and popular culture?” Following her argument, back in the 1960s morals were not necessarily opposing nudity, but were concerned with what the body was communicating through its nudity. What can be disturbing for viewers today? Conquet writes: “we have moved on from [the naked body’s] political militant use to a sort of ‘ground zero’ with respect to nudity, [we are now] more concerned with a highly conceptualised un-gendered un-sexualised bareness, rather than political statement” (3).

Having seen many performances in which nudity is a dominant feature, we believe that it is not nakedness that causes moral concerns. It is rather what the naked bodies are doing, how they are framed, or how they challenge the spectators’ voyeuristic gaze. Any discussion about the naked body and its difference from the clothed body cannot be isolated from its context. We will discuss these issues through a brief description of certain performances that present the body in a dialogic, dynamic relationship with its environment.

Nudity and philosophy

Olivier Dubois in his production Tragédie (2012), attempted to explore the human condition, inspired by Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy. At the beginning of the performance, nine male and nine female naked dancers emerge from darkness and walk up and down the stage for half-an-hour. The audience has plenty of time to observe their individuality within a rich variety of body type and shape, even birthmarks and tattoos. The dancers’ moving and sweating flesh became a corporeal costume, as none of the bare bodies signified the “actual” body (Monks 101). While the dancers remained naked throughout the performance, they unexpectedly entered clothed for the final applause.[1]

In 2014, for the presentation of Tragédie at London’s Sadler’s Wells, all major papers attended, and there was quite a lot of writing about the performance. Mark Monahan wrote in The Daily Telegraph that, while there is no physical contact, the dancers “breathlessly enact various forms of vigorous coitus.” Overall, he commented positively on Tragédie: “the nakedness—which in contemporary dance is usually a sign of choreographic desperation—feels slightly less gratuitous than it might: the point, after all, is the shedding of socio-political shackles and rediscovering a common humanity.”

Zoë Anderson wrote in The Independent that the real reason this show doesn’t work is the boring choreography:

Tragédie deliberately follows classical models. It aims for catharsis by building from ordered pacing to wild flailing. The dancers walk for perhaps half an hour before allowing variation to creep in—a quirked elbow, a faster turn. They step into anguished poses, as if modelling for a bad painting.

An issue for further discussion that arises from the above reviews concerns the overall impact of Tragédie upon viewers. Londoners have seen many nude performances, including those of Michael Clark, who, back in the 1980s, exposed his buttocks and used dildos on stage to provoke the audience. Therefore, the absence of costumes in Tragédie was not an issue that could offend ethical standards. If there was a negative perception, this would effectively be related to choreographic structures and corporeal movements, as well as to the way that the audience can be taken into a more intimate relation with their body and the world.

Mirroring the human condition

Contrary to Tragédie the dancers in Alain Platel’s Out of Contextfor Pina (2010), are never completely naked. The piece has strong intimations of the work of Pina Baucsh, to whom it was dedicated. In this piece Platel, who founded Les Ballets C de la B (Les Ballets Contemporains de la Belgique), in 1984, uses nine extremely virtuosic dancers.

At the beginning of the performance, at the International Dance Festival of Kalamata, in Greece, the dancers were sitting among the audience. Then, one-by-one, they climbed onto the stage, stripped to their underwear, folded their clothes, put them on the ground, covered their bodies with large orange blankets, and just stood there waiting for their individual action-moments. The orange blankets wrapped around the semi-naked bodies can be regarded as possessing a semiotic hidden meaning. The dancers created unique movements (spasms, convulsions, ticks) that alternated with controlled and synchronized dance vocabulary. They alluded to scenes from Pina’s works or mirrored the current unsettled social and cultural context. At the close of the performance the dancers put their clothes back on and returned to their seats among the audience.[2]

Out of Context—for Pina, 2010. Photo: Chris Van der Burght
Out of Context—for Pina, 2010. Photo: Chris Van der Burght

Moving between past and present, or between the theatrical space and the audience, are not the only dualisms in Out of Context. As a review, in the Flemish daily newspaper De Morgen, concluded: “Platel intertwines impulsive, uncontrolled movements and well-considered gestures into choreography that contains tenderness and desire,” (Cited from the program). In his review for The Guardian, Luke Jennings makes the following point: “Platel’s interest here seems to be in dichotomy. In chaos and order, animalism and classical harmony, outer dysfunction and inner transcendence. In any sincere appraisal of the human condition, he seems to be saying that both must be embraced.”

For Hildegard De Vuyst, the dramaturge of the piece, Out of Context gradually turned into a trip to memory:

A dive into the caverns of human existence in search of the roots of childhood and prehistory. Of something in between man and animal, a kind of harmony that passes by (or precedes) the duality of beauty and ugliness, good and evil, me and you, individual and community.

Finally, Judita Vivas, in reference to the actions of stripping and dressing that frame the production, noted: “This relationship creates diverse dramaturgical configurations of the naked skin and, in turn impacts the perception of the performers’ sexuality” (14). The interplay between the exposed and covered body, a possibility of revealing it that never happens, can be associated with various sexual, corporeal meanings. By means of all these dichotomies, Platel goes under the skin, to the essence of our humanity.

Naked truth

On March 2011, when the visitors reached the sixth-floor studio at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, they saw a landscape of earth, leaves, sticks, and black feathers. Looking more attentively they also saw a man and a woman, both naked, lying side by side in darkness under the sound of dripping water somewhere behind them. They were the Japanese-American artists Eiko and Koma in their performance Naked: A Living Installation. The white powder covering the surface of their bodies creates a distancing effect between their flesh and the audience. In some way, it functions like clothing that separates them from the rest of the world.[3]

In their dances, Eiko and Koma usually present awesome cycles and processes from nature in which all beings are caught up. Although they don’t define their work as Butoh, their use of minimalism, metamorphosis, haunting visual imagery and exquisitely controlled movements reveals the connection with its form and universal concepts. Butoh (“The Dance of Utter Darkness”) was born in the deserted lands of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and is rooted in both the mythic past and post-war Japan. Despite being inspired by Butoh and postmodern dance, Eiko and Koma have developed a primordial performative style in their iconoclastic work that is often referred to as “the elegy of art.”

Naked: A Living Installation, 2011. Photo: Anna Lee Campbell
Naked: A Living Installation, 2011. Photo: Anna Lee Campbell

According to an article by Deborah Jowitt in the Village Voice, Eiko and Koma’s artistry transcends any common notions of space and time:

Like Noh and Japanese butoh, the works of Eiko and Koma unfold slowly. But until you’ve seen the two of them perform, or lain nose to the ground to watch a snail cross a patch of grass, you may not have fully experienced slowness. . . their pale, dirt-marked bodies stand out among the dark feathers like mushrooms on the forest floor.

Roslyn Sulcas described in The New York Times emotions and thoughts that Naked evokes to viewers as follows:

At first glance it’s shocking how inhuman the bodies appear… No sooner is their humanity apparent than other images and ideas emerge: Eiko’s bone-thin, fragile body, never still, yet barely moving, inexorably evokes death, battlefields, natural disasters (how can one not think of Japan’s earthquake?), skeletons slowly decaying into the earth. Komo’s hand, stretching toward her, looks almost grotesquely white and large, a horror-film image of death itself.

Even though many butoh performances display an obsession with the dark sides of the human body, especially its raw sexuality, the metaphysical images in Naked are completely desexualized. Nakedness here rather encourages viewers to meditate on the mortality and ephemerality of the human body.


Boris Charmatz, director of the National Choreographic Center in Rennes, France, which he has renamed Musée de la Danse, is one of the leading figures of conceptual dance. In May 2015, Sadler’s Wells and Tate Modern presented in London his earlier work Aatt enen tionon (1996). The piece was performed by Charmatz himself, Matthieu Burner and Lénio Kaklea. At the beginning of the performance, the dancers climb up on a three-level podium positioned center stage with the audience sitting around it. After some warm-up movements, they take off their sweatpants, exposing the naked lower part of their bodies. Their upper part remains covered by a white T-shirt.

Aatt enen tionon, 2015. Photo: Marc Domage
Aatt enen tionon, 2015. Photo: Marc Domage

While dancers usually perform on a horizontal plane that allows physical and visual contact between them, here the use of the three small stages on a vertical plane places the dancers in complete isolation. They are, therefore, forced to establish contact by hearing and sensing the vibrations of the metal structure, especially when their bodies collapse. In contrast to the heaviness of the apparatus, three white balloons that serve as lamps float in the two corners of the space, illuminating the scene or casting it into darkness.

The dancers’ movements, both controlled and abandoned (swings, rolls, falls, balances on the edge of the tinny space), bring in the notion of attention, which means to be alert in case something unexpected might happen. Could it be that the dancers might fall from the structure? Perhaps the piece might affect us to the point of restructuring our experience of perceiving and reacting?

Charmatz splits the audiences’ gaze and their attention. They cannot see everything as the verticality of the structure exceeds the eye level. Lepecki had described the audiences’ gaze sliding up and down as the dance of hundreds of eyes, “not quite sure what to rest upon any more—on the dancers’ faces, on their genitals, on the person across that may be seeing that I am choosing to see what should not be seen” (137).

Luke Jennings, in his review for The Guardian, expressed the thought that the three lonely figures, “have the rawness and the fleshly vulnerability of paintings by Egon Schiele.” In another part of his text, it seems that the sensitivity of the viewer influences the way they interpret the image:

While you think you see everything, you see nothing, because the dancers are so utterly detached, so elsewhere. The stage space is lit by three floating globes, like dying moons. It’s as if the tower is the whole world, lost in the vastness of space.

Since the early 1990s, Charmatz has been actively engaged in the exploration of the sentient and the sensual body, and how it engages with the world around it. All his work shows an interest in exploring questions of modes of perceptions and questions of embodiment. His provocative language of movement and dramaturgical strategies puts constant pressure on prevailing ideals of the visible body.

Living sculpture

In November and December 2015, Xavier Le Roy presented both his work Temporary Title and his legendary solo Self Unfinished (1998) at Carriageworks, in Sydney, and at Dancehouse, in Melbourne. He selected eighteen performers from Melbourne and Sydney to collaborate closely in the development of this new project. Le Roy has described this project as a moving landscape in which the human body is the primary medium of expression. In his approach, rather than instructing the performers to move using a specific technique, he proposed ideas that were discussed and actualised in movement. Also, in a series of open rehearsals, he invited the audience to participate in the process.

The performers blurred the boundaries between the visual, performance and dance. They imitated a pride of lions, moving on their hands and knees, while patrons sat or stood around them. The project lasted six hours and the audience could stay as long as they wished.[4]

This experimental type of live performance allows for the development of a collective and reflexive awareness between audience and performers. Le Roy explained in his lecture at Carriageworks that the performers were encouraged to move close to the viewers and talk with them (mostly about ageing, time, change and geography).

John McDonald, art critic for the Sydney Morning Herald, described the moment that some performers slinked over to talk with members of the audience:

The silence in which Temporary Title unfolds is an important aspect of the experience, as speech is one of the defining points of humanity. When the performers come over to talk with the audience it is as if they have reassumed human identity, freed from the spell that had transformed them into lions.

Le Roy, one of the most influential choreographers of our time, is renowned for his unique methods of exploring the limitations of the body, and the transformative role of the audience in shaping a performance. In the early 2000s, he began to create works designed to be experienced in an exhibition space, and has been credited as one of the pioneering artists that brought dance into museums and galleries.

In the context of live performances in museums, Eddie Peake’s The Forever Loop ran from October 2015 to January 2016 at the Barbican’s Curve Gallery in London. It combined live choreography with video, sculpture and painting. The naked performers (both male and female) took the viewer on a dramatic journey, while a sheer-suited roller skater glided through the space.[5] In Peake’s projects, the naked body, sexuality and desire are typically constant themes. We saw the project and were left with strong memories of a work in which viewers and performers came close physically, as well as intellectually, and in which gender codes and categories were not strictly observed.

Apart from the above, an increasing number of choreographers use bodily exposure—each of them in radically different ways. A distinctive example is Ann Liv Young, who has emerged as one of the most provocative figures of the 2000s in America (Thomas 2015). In 2015, she presented Elektra Cabaret at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater in New York. The piece, inspired by Sophocles’ Elektra, explores each character’s emotional state through pop music and dance.[6] Young, in all her works, particularly in Cinderella, deconstructs pop culture stereotypes through naked flesh and gender awareness, performativity and kitsch, chaos and order, in order to foreground interactions between audience and performer.

Another choreographer who applies nudity with the aspiration to change perceptions and taboos about the human body is John Jasperse. In 2012, his piece Fort Blossom revisited, which is famous for a nude male duet that confronts the gaze of the audience in surprising ways, premiered at the Kitchen in New York. It features four performers, two women elegantly dressed, and two naked men. The dualism that develops between the different worlds of the men and the women is extraordinary.[7]

Fort Blossom Revisited. Photo: Chris Taggart
Fort Blossom Revisited, 2012. Photo: Chris Taggart

We shall refer briefly to two more pieces, which differ in terms of content and context. The first is Lloyd Newson’s potentially provocative production with DV8 Physical Theater John, which we saw in 2014, at the Onassis Cultural Center, in Athens. The audience is faced with a circular stage on which, within the first four minutes, we witness a sadistic beating, rape, incest and death from a drug overdose. In the second part, John, who has just been released from prison, works in a gay sauna in London. The piece is about men and sex, specifically about a masculine approach to sex that is, at some level, curtailed by society.[8]

In contrast, Brazilian choreographer Lia Rodriguez, in Pindorama (2014), transported us back to a time when the theatrical act was still connected with rituals, to a place where a huge piece of transparent vinyl becomes a river that swallows up the naked bodies of human creatures who are struggling against the forces of nature, and searching for a way to function collectively in order to survive.[9]

Final thoughts

Throughout this article we have discussed the purpose of nudity in avant-garde dance performances from a phenomenological point of view that approaches and perceives the human body as a social and historical agent of political activity. The term “political” here is not used with the narrow meaning of communicating specific ideologies, but with regard to the broader role of dance in society; a role that should be understood in the sense that aesthetics may generate personal and collective change.

Not feeling bound by Kenneth Clark’s old distinction between naked and nude we have been using the terms interchangeably while discussing how artists are exposing the body to the viewer. In the selected examples, all artists prioritize movement as a way to communicate ideas. In this sense, the body under the (voyeuristic) gaze of the other encourages reflexion on whether nudity and vulnerability are merely a matter of shame and hiding or a universal condition that we cannot escape by resorting to the use of costume.

As part of the audience, we have seen many performances in which issues such as nudity, eroticism and homosexuality were no longer forbidden. But, thinking of the complex relation between art and consumerism, we wondered at times if nudity was necessary in many dance pieces or whether it merely followed a trend. The centrality of consumerism in our society leads us to contemplate the possibility of images of the nude being reproduced merely to attract audiences to watch other bodies within the legalized context of the theatrical act. Perhaps, that is what Savvas Patsalidis argues for when writing: “The hedonistic ethic, which had dominated a big part of our societies for years, has created a generation of theatre shoppers (and doers) rather than viewers” (5).

Writing about the exposure of the dancing body in our neoliberal society, in which humans have been turned into objects and all values have been stripped away, it has seemed, at times, an issue out of context. Even if this issue is too intricate for the topic of this article, we hope that dancing bodies (and non-dancing bodies) will continue to express ideas about humanity, and to signify their active resistance to the ambiguities of our society.



Works Cited

Albright, Ann Cooper. “Situated Dancing: Notes from Three Decades in Contact with Phenomenology.” Dance Research Journal 43.1 (2011): 7-18. Print.

Anderson, Zoë. “Tragédie, Sadler’s Wells, dance review.” Independent, 9 May 2014. Web. <[11]s-entertainment/theatre-dance/reviews/trag-die-sadler-s-wells-dance-review-9346826.html>.

Burt, Ramsey. Judson Dance Theater: Performative Traces. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Carr-Gomm, Philip. A Brief History of Nakedness. London: Reaktion Books, 2012. Print.

Conquet, Angela. “The Flesh Is Still Weak. So is the Mind.” Dancehouse Diary 6.3 (2014). Web. <>.

Daly, Ann. Done into Dance: Isadora Duncan in America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995. Print.

De Vuyst, Hildegard. Out of Context- for Pina. Program at Kaaitheater, Brussels, 2010. Web. <>.

Franko, Mark. “Dance and the Political: States of Exception.” Dance Discourses: Keywords in Dance Research. Eds. Susanne Franco and Marina Nordera, New York: Routledge, 2007, 11-28. Print.

Jennings, Luke. “Out of Context: For Pina.” The Guardian, 20 June 2010. Web. <>.

Jennings, Luke. “Charmatz: Aatt enen tionon review – look, no pants.” The Guardian, 24 May 2015. Web. <>.

Jones, Amelia. “Survey”. The Artist’s Body. Ed. Tracey Warr. London: Phaidon Press, 2000, 18-47. Print.

Jowitt, Deborah. “Eiko and Koma Travel Slowly Into Dreams.” Village Voice, 30 March 2011. Web. <>.

Hanna, Judith Lynne. “Dance and Sexuality: Many Moves.” The Journal of Sex Research 47.2-3 (2010): 212-41. Print.

Hunt, Mary Ellen. “Parades and Changes”: Anna Halprin. SFGATE, 13 February 2013. Web. <>.

Kourlas, Gia. “The Bare Essentials of Dance.” New York Times, 12 February 2006. Web. <>.

Lepecki, André. “Skin, Body, and Presence in Contemporary European Choreography.” The Drama Review 43.4 (1999): 129-40. Print.

Lunceford, Brett. Naked Politics: Nudity, Political Action, and the Rhetoric of the Body. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2012. Print.

McDonald, John. “Xavier Le Roy.” Sydney Morning Herald, 19 November 2015. Web. <>.

Monaham, Mark. “Olivier Dubois, Tragédie, review.” The Telegraph, 9 May 2014. Web. <>.

Monks, Aoife. The Actor in Costume. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan Ltd, 2010. Print.

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*Maria Tsouvala is assistant professor at the Department of Early Childhood Education, of the University of Thessaly. She holds an MA and an MEd from Teachers College, Columbia University, New York City and a PhD from the University of Athens. She has published articles in journals and artistic magazines in Greece and abroad.


**Katia Savrami, Choreologist, holds an MA and a PhD from the Laban Centre, City University, London. She is assistant professor at the Department of Theatre Studies of the University of Patras and author of a series of dance books and articles. She is also the editor of Choros International Dance Journal published since 2012 in Greece.

Copyright © 2016 Maria Tsouvala and Katia Savrami
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

This work is licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution International License CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

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The Human Body in Contemporary Dance: from Costumes to Nakedness