Commentary: Nudity in dance is "opening up new areas of thought and feeling"

Alastair Macaulay, chief dance critic of The New York Times, Sunday Arts & Leisure, 8/19/12

How do you react to the look of a naked body onstage?  In experimental modern dance, it is now a widespread condition. A bigger surprise has been to find that sometimes -- infrequently, but sometimes -- it succeeds.  And when it does, it changes our perception of muscles and flesh; it plants new meanings and ideas. Its effect is one of drama. When I tell friends of [viewing modern dance works which feature nudity], they inevitably ask: Where is the line between art and pornography?  But there's always been a huge overlap between the two; you can see scenes of copulation on Greek vases and Indian temples. What's more, many works of art have seemed pornographic without nakedness. Many of us are tempted to talk as if art = good, pornography = bad. Yet that's wrong too.  Meanwhile, the exposure of the unadorned body has even started to alter the world of ballet.  When tights are removed from ballet, the art itself is changed. Ballet, the genre that once recaptured the ideal quality of nudity, becomes instead the art of nakedness. This could prove a valuable new departure, but it's worth considering its implications. The look of the bare leg drastically changes the entire aesthetics of the form. Muscular details of thigh, knee, calf become suddenly distracting. Ballet is principally a musical form of dancing. It was the former ballet star Robert Helpmann who famously observed the problem with dancing naked: when you stop on the music, not all parts of your anatomy stop at the same time.  In dance, therefore, stage nakedness is likely to remain the domain of experimental modern dance. In particular, it suits slow motion.Fascinatingly, where it is well deployed, the drama beneath the surface feels far from slow. For now, let's note that the current extensive use of exposed flesh in dance is opening up new areas of thought and feeling.


Commentary: European opera buffs embrace nudity more than Americans

Fred Plotkin, WQXR's Operavore blog, 7/16/12

As a general rule, I think nudity in opera is fine if it is an integral part of the story. Gratuitous nudity does not work well because it tends to be distracting and we focus on it rather than on the music and the story. If a woman playing Salome does the "Dance of the Seven Veils" and removes all of her coverings, that makes sense in context. [But] I once saw a Salome in Germany in which the soprano did not undress completely but, when the executioner came out with the bloodied head of John the Baptist, he was entirely naked. It was distracting on many levels. What this phenomenon of gratuitous nudity might be about is the way the naked body is perceived in different societies. Charles Reid, the fine American tenor, told me, "There are some singers in Europe who like to be exhibitionists and want to be able to bare all on the stage. I also think -- without totally generalizing -- that a German director seems to approach nudity as sexy whereas, historically at least, an American director would view tension as sexy." Canadian baritone Daniel Okulitch appeared nude in The Fly at L.A. Opera. Nudity in the transformation scene from man to insect in this science fiction story might seem incongruous, but it is brief and in keeping with the story. Contrast this with what American tenor Zachary Stains did at the Spoleto festival in Italy in Ercole sul Termodonte, Vivaldi's version of the Hercules story. In the original myth, the young hero has slain a lion and wears its skin over his naked body. As directed in this production, the singer is asked to sing at length while naked, something even Salome does not have to do. What is remarkable in this performance is not so much the seeming casualness in Stains's nudity [note: video may be NSFW], but that he sings so well in this state. Another question this clip raises is what it is like for other performers to be onstage with a naked singer. Give credit to the other singer in Ercole whose bright eyes and frozen smile seem more about his admiration for Hercules than the "Oh-my-God-what-do-I-do?" dilemma.


Commentary: In China, a recent exhibition of nude art spurs a rare open debate, 8/3/12

It wasn't so long ago that Chinese Central TV shocked and appalled art lovers and netizens alike by censoring the genitalia of Michelangelo's 'David-Apollo' statue. Many were shocked by the TV station's defilement of a classic art piece. Along these same lines, the following article, translated and edited from an article in the Guangzhou Daily, discusses the intense public debate over "artistic expression" and "obscenity" that recently broke out over an exhibit at in Guangzhou:

Most people wouldn't expect to see a painting of a sexy, nude woman bent over at the hip turning seductively towards her audience at the front entrance of a [Chinese] public art exhibition center. But in Guangzhou, that is exactly what visitors saw at the Jinhan Exhibition Center. From July 18 through August 3, this exhibit, which includes oil paintings of a nude woman in various sultry positions, was on display in the building's front entrance. Unsurprisingly, Guangzhou citizens expressed opposition. Many [called] for the local authorities to do something about the "obscene" exhibit. The local Trade and Industry Bureau, however, [was] in favor of the exhibit, and is standing by its opinion that the exhibit is art and deserves to be displayed publically. That being said, the representative for the bureau also stated that perhaps the exhibit hadn't gone through the proper channels for being approved for public exhibition, and that an investigation would commence shortly. In the meantime, locals can ponder amongst themselves that insolvable philosophical debate: "What exactly is art?"  According to the Chinese Official Code of Advertising Law, "Public advertisements and exhibits cannot show obscene or indecent content." However, in reality, it is much more difficult to concretely define what exactly qualifies as "obscene" or "indecent". Authorities have admitted that there are many loopholes in the current legal code.  While the debate of "obscenity versus art" may not be a new one in many countries, this exhibit marks one of the first times that China has so openly debated such a complex hot-topic issue. It will be interesting to see if more controversial art will be displayed in the future or if censorship of nudity will continue.


Edinburgh airport reverses its decision to cover up a Picasso nude

BBC News, 8/8/12

Edinburgh Airport has reversed its decision to cover up a poster featuring a Picasso nude following complaints. "Nude Woman in a Red Armchair" was advertising the Picasso and Modern British Art exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. However, the airport decided to cover the image after several complaints from passengers in international arrivals. After gallery chiefs branded the move "bizarre", the airport has backed down and removed the cover. John Leighton, director-general of the National Galleries of Scotland, said: "It is obviously bizarre that all kinds of images of women in various states of dress and undress can be used in contemporary advertising without comment, but somehow a painted nude by one of the world's most famous artists is found to be disturbing and has to be removed. I hope that the public will come and see the real thing, which is a joyous and affectionate portrait of one of Picasso's favourite models, an image that has been shown around the world." An Edinburgh Airport spokesperson said: "We have now reviewed our original decision and reinstated the image. The initial decision was a reaction to passenger feedback, which we do always take seriously. However on reflection we are more than happy to display the image in the terminal and we'd like to apologise, particularly to the exhibition organisers, for the confusion."


Commentary: The international phenomenon of 'Naked Girls Reading'

Jamie Laughlin, Dallas Observer blog, 8/9/12

[Tonight,] a group of Dallas women will sit proud in front of an audience and read passages from their favorite stories, completely in the nude. It's a literary trend appropriately titled Naked Girls Reading, and now, after a two year hiatus, it's returned to Dallas. The concept was hatched in Chicago by a couple of burlesque performers. They just thought it would be fun. It wound up becoming a phenomenon. Soon, installments of Naked Girls Reading started popping up all over the country, then in the UK. Now it's been resurrected [in Dallas] by a former reader who goes by her burlesque handle, Black Mariah. For a performance where women read unclothed, it's been met with very little controversy. Critics have said that the women and the hardcover books they hold -- often in candlelight -- create an exciting, soothing "living painting." Paul Constants of The Stranger had this to say about his experience seeing it in Seattle:

"Despite the beauty of the five naked women, the titillation part of the evening ended fairly quickly. There was no dancing, twirling, or bending over backward; legs remained primly crossed or tucked together...Which means that the reading itself has to be good, or else you're going to get pretty fucking bored pretty fucking quickly."

From there he goes on to explain that the women were, in fact, tremendous readers with exceptional source material. Also, that it was interesting to see a naked human read a book, that you notice how excited or involved she is in every quiver of her skin.  Black Mariah thinks it gets even deeper than the dermis. "For a woman to be so vulnerable and open, and strip everything else away just gives the content new meaning." And when asked the obvious question: "Why must women be naked to read?" She just laughed and responded "Well, who's going to pay to see women read with their clothes on?" 

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