Skin Stories: Dancing Naked

Jordan Lennie in Swan Lake II : Dark Waters captured by Nicola CanavanJordan Lennie in Swan Lake II : Dark Waters captured by Nicola Canavan

Zosia Jo trained at The Place and The Northern School of Contemporary Dance. She also has training in drama, as well as psychotherapy and counselling. Zosia has taught extensively across the UK and abroad. Her choreographic work extends beyond that for children and she also dances for other companies throughout the UK

Jordan Lennie trained at the Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance.
Since graduating he has performed in works by choreographers such as Russell Maliphant, Andrew Hardwidge, and Lucy McCormick. Since 2013 Lennie has been creating and performing with the company PanicLab, working with director Joseph Mercier and producer Clara Giraud on The Rite of Spring, Of Saints and GoGo Boys, R.I.O.T. and Swan Lake II: Dark Waters. He is also currently a dancer for Stephen Pelton Dance Theatre.

Jordan-Lee Pirrie is originally from Marlow, Buckinghamshire and is a third year BA Dance student at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.

After receiving a provocation (below) by Gareth they share their thoughts and feelings on what it is to dance Naked.

To be naked, to move through space without the protection of clothes.

Our shield from scrutinizing eyes. Eyes which undo you, make you unravel like ribbon in the wind. We undo ourselves, we make each other fall apart.

The eyes in the changing room can send you spiraling or perhaps soaring. The act of being watched is natural but can be destructive. Can it also be addictive? I don’t mean the man with the mackintosh in the park, I’m talking about that vibrating feeling, the skin which tingles with a nervous anticipation.
I’m about to be viewed. For all that I am.

Isn’t it liberating? Or is it soul-destroying?

The paint of censorship was slathered on us by others. The penis is a weapon and the vagina is a leaky plughole which can stain the carpets apparently. Our bodies have become weapons which are not our own, they can be dangerous. Dangerous to those who like to keep order? The ones who say it’s dirty and provocative?

How can that be so?

To dance is an attempt to disrupt this order, to dance naked is even more powerful. It’s an attempt. But you can never shake these shackles.

You can shake that power, the power the gaze has over you. Silence the voice which lives within your arteries and makes its way to your brain.

For that moment you have made that choice.

You have removed your clothes.

ZJ:As a woman I was taught all my life that body had power, power over others, power over myself. I shied from it as my breasts grew in at 11 and boys / men in the street would look at me.

The child in me was afraid of this body that would define my place on the planet. I learnt to feel shame, I wanted to shrink and to hide.

The only power I had over my body was how to move it. When the patriarchal, army style teachers in my college told me I wasn’t moving it right I became an inverted version of myself. I wanted my body to eat itself from the inside, to shrink, to hide.

The first time I was naked for my art it was a fuck you to those teachers. Right there in the college where I learnt to feel fat (and therefore taboo) I stood naked on stage and didn’t dance. An artist painted me like I was the blank canvas I had become… invisible.
Later I was photographed, sketched and painted onto blanker canvas. People were more interested in the fatter parts of me, they wanted lines, curves, flesh. In men’s responses to me I had learned that as a dancer I was supposedly more sexual.

I reacted with anger. Dancing was my art. Maybe even my prayer, my spiritual practice. They debased it with the questions and assumptions.

In standing naked, moving naked, I stopped hiding. I embraced the fact that my body and myself were one. In the art made from my image I became beautiful. By a slow process I began to feel beautiful. Then and only then was it possible to dance again. My dance took me across the world to another culture, one that I believed even more than mine that dance was evil, sexual.

Yet here it was that I discovered the deeper truth in my spiritual practice, that I could connect with whatever it was that they call god, through moving my body. I watch them pray, going down and up and using the whole of the body to speak to god and I can’t help but wonder, am I not closer to him/her by moving my body so completely, and connecting movement to my inner self? Would it not be more honest to pray naked?

Totally at one with the way god made us?

JLP:An interesting concept that the clothed body provides a shield from the thing that’s underneath, however talking about the naked body as negative only heightens the preconceived ideas mentioned.
It reminds me of the feelings you have as a child, to hold hands with someone of the opposite sex made you make silly faces and say ‘eww’, because your sex was the best. Boys rule and girls drool. When we grow up, that idea shifts completely, and seeing someone in their raw state, naked, provides a rush that is evoked by sex.

That moment is shared between two, but to share that with more than one other is hard, or is assumed to be hard.

It relates to doing anything for the first time, and showing that part of yourself to an audience that are, usually, judging what you do.

Speaking in front of a room full of people may be harder for some than being naked.

Being viewed naked shouldn’t be liberating nor soul-destroying. The friction felt when the words ‘naked’ and ‘performance’ are together is regretful, but informed by what I believe most people think nudity is about; sex. It is, like mentioned, not our fault that so much of being naked is about having sexual organs on show for the world to see, and whether this state can be viewed as objectification without the sexualisation. Keeping people clothed doesn’t necessarily mean that you are restraining them from being themselves, in which art, culture and society have such close bonds that trends often inform one another. Nudity is perhaps one of the great disrupters of this, and to be comfortable and free in this state is curious.

Society’s acceptance of nakedness will forevermore be just that, an acceptance but in certain situations; photoshoots, charity calendars, sex, art. There is a reason for each of these to exist and therefore a reason to explore something that is not ‘the norm’.

Dancing naked is one of those feelings that extends words. Being naked is one thing, but exploring performative states through a place that is rarely seen through public eyes is brave, raw and truthful; maybe the hardest form of expression.

JL:I don’t remember the first time I saw a piece of theatre that contained nudity. At this point it feels that it has always been something I have been comfortable with and open to. I do remember seeing a play as a young teen in which a man mimed blowing another man and I freaked out about how wild that was… So clearly at some point nudity would have been a big deal for me. I just can’t remember it being so.

In my second year at Ballet school I tried to do my first naked performance. The piece was basically a rip off of a scene in Danny Boyles’s Frankenstein in which Benedict Cumberbatch stumbled around the stage naked trying to learn how to walk. I re-imagined the piece as a kind of re-birthing of an adult body. A sort of regressive, somatic dance. I studied babies learning to crawl, the piece finished as I finally stood and walked off stage. But I was not allowed to be naked. Doing this performance in flesh coloured underwear was so unsatisfactory that I wished I had not done the performance at all. But I did, and the school’s policy was that I could not be nude. In fact in the same term another student was told his female dancers couldn’t be topless… Of course there are barely any student pieces in which the guys don’t have their nipples out.

I never really thought that it would cause such a fuss. Nudity at this point for me wasn’t a political statement, it wasn’t to be shocking or provocative, I wasn’t an exhibitionist (yet). I just imagined that the piece should be nude, that the character shouldn’t have had clothes, and that was that.

I started to notice the treatment of the naked body within the school. Guys took their underwear into the toilet cubicles to change, something I had always done since high school when allowing my classmates to see my tiny hairless balls would have been social suicide! It all felt very British, the European guys would just whip it out and change and this would be cause for discussion amongst the prudes… ‘did you see the size of his dick’… ‘how long does he have to stand naked’, even amongst the women I picked up on small titters of discomfort ‘You know so and so gets fully naked in the changing room and just stands there with her bush out…’ I started to realise how strange this discomfort with the naked body was. All of a sudden in hiding my naked body I felt part of a ridiculous and harmful social tradition. And so I started changing out in the open, I started standing with my cock out and having lengthy conversations. I want to say it was liberating… but honestly it just wasn’t a big deal.

The first time, and maybe really the only time, I have seen nudity in dance as an act of rebellion was at the end of my second year. My friend was part of a dance piece of around 7 dancers who were to improvise based on their responses to how they felt in the space together. The other 6 dancers were late for the dress rehearsal and as punishment were not allowed to do their piece. My friend ended up in the space alone, and as either a blatant act of disregard or as an honest response to feeling exposed in that moment, he stripped down to his birthday suit and lay on the floor. There were probably no more than 4 people watching this rehearsal, myself included, and as far as I’m aware none of us wrote a letter of complaint… But this guy got a real bollocking (sorry, couldn’t resist) from the staff at the school. What if one of the 16 year old students had seen this performance… God forbid!

After leaving Ballet school I started working in theatre and performance art contexts. All of a sudden the rules had changed. I could be naked, this time it was liberating, to be looked at, to watch an audience watching me dance nude, to feel like an object of desire, nudity wasn’t just normal anymore, because I wasn’t doing it in a context where it is necessarily expected that I would be naked. All of a sudden it was exciting to be naked, empowering and erotic. Not shocking or progressive in terms of its use in theatre, but for me it fed a desire to be seen. Fully seen. I started life modelling, I did nude photo shoots with friends, I became obsessed with sculpture of the naked body and how through exercise I could craft and change the body that I was exhibiting. When I am naked in performance I honestly barely even think about my cock. Its the skin and the muscle and the veins on show that is erotic. What if I twist this way, what do you see, what if I bend this way, if I lift this arm…

Perhaps now I have come full circle. I have been naked on stage so much that it has become normal. A nude performance makes me no more nervous than a clothed one. Eroticism and sensuality in naked performance is more contextual. My response to performing naked is much more influenced by the audience. I guess early on in my performance career I just found it exciting and arousing. Now it depends totally on the audience.

I am naked in front of these people and it’s hilarious. I feel the audience member’s discomfort, and I perform it back to them, if I feel they are relaxed then I am relaxed, somehow being naked allows me to really feel how I am being viewed and then I can project that back to the audience. It’s not about looking impressive or being desired… Of course I still get off on being naked in front of hundreds of clubbers as I perform naked ballet at Duckie for their club night during Pride. I know someone in the room wants to fuck me, and that makes for damn good ballet performance.

But for the most part I guess it’s not necessarily a sexual thing, the body is the body, a nipple is a nipple whether on a man or woman, your ass is a muscle and your pubes are just another patch of optional hair… But I forget that within this performance context we are all having these conversations, and exploring the body, and questioning what it means to be naked.
For us it’s not a big deal, but we are an exception, and actually the naked body IS still a sexual thing, and it can shock and offend. And as much as I feel liberated that I can wave my cock around at the RVT or at Chelsea Theatre, we still haven’t shaken off these shackles, there are still venues that wont host performance with nudity for fear of offence, there are still artists who do not value nudity as an important choice in performance and there is still a young man changing into his jock strap in the cubicle of my old school.

*Featured/thumbnail image:Jordan Lennie performing in Swan Lake II: Dark Waters which will be showing at The Chelsea Theatre 24 & 25 November at 8pm; image courtesy of Nicola Canavan © 2015