Sydney Dance Company in association with the Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, January 7.
There are a few housekeeping rules to absorb before going downstairs to view the dance work Nude Live among the Picassos, Bacons, J.M.W. Turners and Cindy Shermans that are part of the Nude: Art from the Tate collection show at the Art Gallery of NSW.
There’s to be no photography, of course, which is standard for dance although not for exhibitions. Everyone knows the other important stricture, which is don’t touch the artworks. Not the paintings, not the sculptures, not the works on paper, and certainly not the dancers in this absorbing collaboration between Sydney Dance Company and the gallery for the Sydney Festival.
As the name Nude Live suggests, the dancers are physically present – this isn’t contemporary video art – and they are nude if you accept Kenneth Clark’s distinction between the nude and the naked (it has to do with transformation via art versus the absence of clothing). But as one ponders the social, political and theoretical issues involved, and there are many, the most mysterious aspect of Nude Live is that while the dancers are completely unclothed and within arm’s reach of (or even closer to) the audience, they are not stripped bare in any profound sense. They seem to wear a protective bubble – a suit of armour even – and the closer you get the more unknowable and awe-inspiring they appear.
It goes without saying they are remarkably beautiful in form and function, works of art in themselves. The most marvellous discovery, however, is that their presence illuminates the exhibition as no learned lecture could. Ideas are made flesh but one is also made aware of our mortality. Most of the works in the exhibition will outlive us all. (There is nothing more touching in the show than Rineke Dijkstra’s 1994 photographs of naked women and their new-born babies, one taken just one hour after the birth.)
One of the sweet ironies of Nude Live is that it’s impossible to see everything. Its three women and four men are found together only once in the hour-long piece choreographed by Sydney Dance Company’s artistic director Rafael Bonachela. Otherwise the dancers have to be sought out in the exhibition’s various rooms, where they can be seen in solos, duos and trios or simply sitting or lying.
Once inside the space the audience members can move around at will, staying with dancers for as long or briefly as desired. Nude Live is therefore a totally individual experience shaped by the viewer.
The Tate show has eight overarching themes: historical, private, modern and erotic nudes; body politics; paint as flesh; real and surreal bodies; and the vulnerable body. Bonachela’s choreography responds mostly on this thematic level. He also arranges dancers in still poses that suggest images that may be seen on the walls or on plinths and creates several pas de deux that connect directly with individual works.
My first and best decision was to head for the most distant room, one of two spaces devoted to The Vulnerable Body. That’s where Ron Mueck’s larger-than-life sculpture Wild man is and where David Mack, discovered alone, echoes the tense unease of that piece to the music of Schubert. Later in that room Mack, Zachary Lopez and Oliver Savariego grapple and wrestle in an elaborate dance no individual seems able to dominate. A more restrained duo for Lopez and Savariego has geometric precision warmed by the glowing skin and lean muscularity of the two young men.
Central to Nude Live is the group dance to an aria from Francesco Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, Io son l’umile ancella (I am the humble servant of the creative spirit), performed before Francis Bacon’s Triptych 1974-77. Dancers gently guide some audience members to places where they sit or stand opposite the rest of us, the watchers watched. The following dance is luxuriant and fluid, an oasis of calm interaction in opposition to the anguish painted by Bacon.
Two dances that none should miss are the balletic pas de deux for Mack and Marlo Benjamin in the room containing only Rodin’s The kiss and the funny-sad duo for Olivia Kingston and Izzac Carroll in front of Stanley Spencer’s Double nude portrait: the artist and his second wife. Mack tenderly holds Benjamin, who at one point is seated gracefully on his shoulder. All is peace and beauty. Kingston and Carroll play out a riveting study in need and disconnection, set to the Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony no. 5. Kingston arranges Carroll’s legs just so, folds his arms around her and places his hands on her breasts and buttocks, but he is in another world. Spencer’s painting posits the wife – the second wife – as the detached party but for both couples something has gone wrong.
As Nude Live progresses there is a clever shift from the cerebral and sculptural to a more sensual approach. Well, I can only say this is how I perceived it, given what I chose to watch. Others may have felt differently or have seen things I missed. There’s no confusion however about how the piece ends, which is boldly with a forceful unison dance from Kingston and Fiona Jopp to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. They are far from submissive maidens forced into sacrifice. They are fiercely themselves – loud, proud and yes, naked. Their call.
There are whispers that Nude Live may have another life. If that comes to pass, the obvious venue would be Auckland Art Gallery, where the Tate exhibition goes next. In New Zealand the show is called The Body Laid Bare – Masterpieces from Tate and it runs there from March 18 to July 16. Art and dance-lovers across the ditch should start agitating right now.
A version of this review first appeared in The Australian on January 9.
Nude Live ends January 23. At the 7.30pm performances on January 14 and 23 audience members must be naked.