We Can't Stand Still: Reflections on Death and the Naked Body in Motion
Dandelion Dance Theater Artistic Director Eric Kupers explores nakedness
One of the only things we can say for sure is that we will each die. Everything else is uncertain. This aspect of life permeates every day, every moment, yet we rarely think about it. There is something in us that seems to want things to stay the same, whether or not we find satisfaction in them. This applies to our pushing away of death, and also to the pushing away of our bodies. Our bodies are constantly changing. We look one way one day, and then quite different the next. We get older. We wrinkle. We sag. We fall apart. Yet, with the amount of control modern technology gives us, we can create the illusion of bodies that don’t change, don’t age, don’t decompose. We can attempt to turn our bodies into some ideal, during life and even right after death, leading to a kind of inner/outer disconnection. Over the past four years, I have been involved in a dance/theater project that seeks to face these issues head-on.
In nakedness, everything is revealed. We are what we are, like it or not. Through my "Undressed Project" (developed with my company, Dandelion Dancetheater) we experiment with how the shedding of clothes can yield potent inner growth and creative expression. Centered around the creation of evening length naked dance/theater works, the project also features clothes-free dance workshops, video and artist showcases. In 2004 we premiered "Night Marsh," the culmination of the first three years of our investigation. In 2006 we up the ante by including community choruses of naked performers, drawn from workshops held in each city that we will perform " Anicca," our new work. 'Anicca' is the Pali word (the language that the Buddha taught in) for impermanence. We are challenging body image prejudice by illuminating the impermanence of all bodies, placing beauty concerns in a larger and more pressing context. This has especially interesting reverberations in the dance world, which has historically maintained a rigid standard for body shape and size. As the project develops, I am struck over and over again by new insights, theories and inspirations about the power of naked dance.
In the Mix
In a collective embracing of diversity we are pushed to access parts of our selves that are indestructible. Our "Night Marsh" cast delved into dangerous emotional realms. Each of us was triggered by the nudity into varying amounts of insecurity, frustration, fear, jealousy, competition, self-hatred and pain. The project stripped us of a layer of protection that we all took for granted. It’s one thing to get naked at a nude beach or hot tub, but a whole new level of vulnerability is evoked when taking off our clothes in a grungy urban rehearsal space every week, no matter what our moods happened to be. Sometimes it was liberating, sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes joyful and sometimes boring. It was our job.
I tried to allow the group sufficient time for emotional processing, while keeping us steadily moving into new artistic territory. Because of the immensity of the feelings stirred up, this was a very tricky balance. I often had to throw my plans completely out the window in order to honor the distinct process of each dancer. Some people were uncomfortable touching their bare skin to a highly trafficked dance floor, and some felt that their physical boundaries were crossed in the guise of healing touch. A number of women felt uncomfortable being directed to take off their clothes by a man and some men struggled with shame about erections. We all had to examine the language we used and assumptions we carried about fat, dance skills, disability, identity, sexuality and comfort levels. It was fertile territory for growth.
The project’s dancers have been old, young, fat, thin, wrinkly, smooth, queer, straight, black, white, Asian American, Latino, disabled, able-bodied, polyandrous(not sure what was mean here), monogamous, single, introverted, extroverted, professional dancers, dancers returning from long breaks, beginners, choreographers, actors, singers, Jewish, Pagan, Buddhist, Sufi, Christian, atheist, intellectual, emotional, optimists, pessimists, rebellious, polite, patient, impatient and so many other things. We’ve been linked because we each have a body. And we are all committed to a dance project in which we perform and rehearse completely naked. Underneath that commitment, it seems we each maintain a distinct drive towards liberation—whether it is political, social, spiritual, psychological or kinetic. We are all willing to sacrifice a sense of safe territory in the pursuit of greater freedom.
Each time I get naked, my insecurities about my body, my dance abilities and my self worth fly right into my face. While they have lessened over time, I have not yet been fear free. One of my spiritual teachers, Pema Chodron, continually encourages us to “go to the places that scare you.” It was in this spirit that I began "The Undressed Project." We’ve all had to find ways to access our courage again and again. Could we love our bodies in the midst of prejudice? Could we let go of our biases about bodies and nudity? Could we allow our naked bodies to be objects of projection for audiences, so that they could acknowledge their own body issues? And then to top it off, in order to reach some of the deeper issues about body image, I steered the project towards examining our inevitable decay and dissolution—our death.
So much of our obsession with appearances involves counteracting the affects of change. Plastic surgery, dieting, compulsive exercising, excessive make-up all attempt to control the uncontrollable. And the ultimate uncontrollable is death. Could it be that our denial of our bodies directly mirrors our denial of death? When I looked at what we were doing through the lens of the body’s impermanence, the work crystallized.
I wrote text that reminded us in many different ways that this body will end. Hearing this over and over had a chilling effect. I found myself faced with the terror of death’s uncertainty. What happens when I die? Do I continue beyond the dissolution of the body? What if death comes before I’m ready? Will I lose everything I’ve worked for in this life? What if my death is violent and painful? What if I don’t get a chance to say goodbye?
By the time we got to performances, I realized the powerful transformation we had all gone through. Each night I would look at these performers that I had come to love so deeply, and then look out at this audience that was present with us for the moment—and realize that we are all in this together—none of us free from uncertainty about when death will come and what it will be like. Fears around being naked and not having the “right” body melted away.
From the Physical to…
The nakedness originally felt solely physical. We were challenging some very specific cultural taboos. We were cutting through beliefs about what dancers’ bodies should look like and for thatmatter, what all bodies should look like. And we were moving beyond limiting notions of beauty to present a radical re-visioning of public nudity, fatness, physical disabilities, wrinkles, blemishes, touch and privacy. None of these were small obstacles. My role in the dance community shifted a good deal and I found myself not included in circles that had once welcomed me. At the same time, doors to new artistic worlds opened effortlessly. We found that our desire for embracing body diversity was shared by more people than we had guessed.
I still see the work in the context of the physical body, but this aspect now seems contained in something much more vast. I am now experiencing nakedness as a spiritual and energetic practice. We hide so much from each other with clothes on. When we are naked together we first of all must face our body prejudices. We are confronted with what attracts and repulses us and we see how much of our preferences (which felt so personal) are socially constructed. We are also confronted by our discomfort with vulnerability. There are fewer places to hide when we’re naked—we are pushed to face ourselves and each other. When naked, sweat, body smells, pimples, farts, cellulite, genitals, hair, lack of hair, scars, are all completely out in the open. Most of us have spent countless hours hiding, covering up and ignoring these parts of our humanity.
The stance I decided to commit to as a guiding light for the "Undressed Project" was one of embracing every aspect of the body without exception; not only because that is a compassionate approach, but also because it is precisely in all of these “imperfections” that a fascinating array of textures is made available for choreography. Whether or not I find a certain body attractive at the moment, I am called to see its larger beauty, and in that shift of perception I expand my psyche. Embracing the parts of the body that I previously pushed away also serves as a metaphor for embracing the parts of my emotional, mental and spiritual self that I’d rather were different. I’ve realized that all my inner states, regardless of whether I like them or not, can be seen as part of a dynamic, organic choreography.
I cultivated diversity in gathering the cast for this work, and yet I have been struck by the ways in which all bodies seem so similar—imbued with deep fragility and resiliency at the same time. Particularly potent for me has been the way nakedness of the body invokes a kind of nakedness of the being. Petty concerns fall away. This is what I miss most when we’re not in rehearsal. Not the lack of clothes per se, but how nudity encouraged who we are at a deeper level to touch.
Our audiences responded strongly to the sense of community within the work and expressed a desire to witness that inclusion in performing groups more often. Most people reported to me that after seeing "Night Marsh" they healed some aspect of a schism with their bodies and felt empowered to go further. There were continual echoes from the cast and audiences about the catalyzing affect of the work. All of these responses point towards the “holographic” effect of art: that by exploring one specific aspect of life (in this case the naked body), truths that impact all levels of experience are encountered.
In reflecting on these four years of naked creation and performance, I am coming into a greater understanding of why I am drawn to do this work, although much of it still remains mysterious. I had no idea when I began the "Undressed Project" that the combination of nudity and dance performance would reveal itself as one of the most vigorous tools of artistic healing I have encountered. I found my expectations regularly dashed in the most exciting ways as we developed our first evening length naked piece. The most startling moment of this was when we had our first public showing.
The Projected Body
I had worked with our scenic designer, Jess Hooks, to develop a video that we would project onto the bodies onstage. The video was a montage of scenes from movies, magazine covers, commercials and ads that exemplified the way our culture objectifies and degrades bodies. It was a disturbing video, but one that I thought could drive home some important political statements. After the showing, as the feedback unfolded, a number of dancers expressed extreme dislike for the video.
“I have these images projected on my body every day when I walk down the street. I won’t let that happen here! This is supposed to be a safe space for my body!” one dancer shouted. Others echoed her feelings. Many were crying. It was a challenging moment for me as a director. I had to sit and listen to poignant pain that my art had stirred up without arguing or voicing any “fix-it” ideas. The energy in the room was sizzling. No one knew quite how to respond. I knew that I had to find a way to make the piece politically provocative and to honor my dancers’ trust in me at the same time.
The whole next weekend was spent filming a new video, wherein the piece became a journey for one dancer away from technology and society and into a realm below ground where naked bodies, saturated in the earth’s musk, remind her of the cycles of death and birth. What at first seemed like a disaster at the showing, turned out to be a key to the work’s power. Artistic crisis continually reveals itself as one of the most fertile sites for creation. “Disasters” such as this have kept me passionately moving forward through these 22 years of dedication to dance; and the "Undressed Project" has pushed the wonder I experience in this field to new heights.
The Nakedness of Endings
In the very last moments of "Night Marsh," I walk across the stage and look into the eyes of Debby Kajiyama who has played the protagonist through this “Alice-in-Wonderland”-like journey. I take her hand and lead her into the full group of bodies who are singing an ecstatic lament.
I imagined each night that Debby and I were stepping into death together, and that neither of us knew what would happen. Once we entered the group, the singing always seemed to jump a level, like our bodies were being dissolved in sound. I feel so grateful for that moment because it felt so true—the look in Debby’s eyes, both of our fears, the nakedness of dying reflecting the nakedness we are born in, walking with trust into the unknown.
I believe that the sweat-soaked memory of taking that journey with her (and of course with the whole cast) will be a touchstone of calm for me when I have to walk into the extreme unknown again, naked to whatever’s next. We were practicing dying, with nakedness as our guide. I feel better about death, knowing that all of us with bodies are going there, and remembering that I met this particular group of bodies in a space of such courage and vulnerability—a space that feels like it will somehow transcend death.
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