Giannandrea Poesio

Shock and awe | 18 June 2011

Two weeks ago, the unsettling proximity of a perfectly sculpted naked male butt with my nose made me think again about the critic/artist relationship.

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Two weeks ago, the unsettling proximity of a perfectly sculpted naked male butt with my nose made me think again about the critic/artist relationship. I am talking, of course, about Dave St Pierre’s much talked about performance of Un peu de tendresse bordel de merde! at Sadler’s Wells, the raunchiness of which attracted and dominated the interest of various media for a few days. Chastely translated into ‘a little tenderness, for crying out loud’ — although a more appropriate translation would be ‘a little tenderness, for fuck’s sake!’ — the 2006 work, like many other examples of modern day dance- theatre, relies considerably on shock values, although it also includes some excellent choreography.

Being a child of the Sixties, and having grown up with a now much idealised avant-garde, I take no exception to nudity, not even when it is so literally in your face. After all, St Pierre’s naked artists, running amok among the audience while begging to be tickled, are not that different from the naked artists of the 1960s/1970s Living Theatre, who tied themselves to your seat and asked you to remove strategically placed ropes to reclaim your viewer’s place. True, St Pierre opts for a more displacing shock treatment as his infringement of the fourth wall is full of that rebellious dark humour that many late postmodern performance-makers like so much.

Before the guys strip down and jump off the stage, a dominant, snarling ring- mistress warns the audience that their role in the performance will not be an entirely passive one. And so the people’s response to the wide range of vocal and physical provocations generates a lively performance within the performance. I loved the way some alpha males looked embarrassed by such an overt objectification and ridicule of the male body. Some people left because of the nudity, others left once the nudity was over. Most people stayed, though, bemused and captivated by a performance that might pack in too much, but leaves you thinking that going to the theatre can still be an experience of some sort.

For me, the real thrills did not come from the shock treatment, but mostly from the memorably intense dance moments and theatrical ideas. Even the initially shocking nakedness becomes pure poetry in the end, when, thanks to an ingeniously basic trick, the dancers float and skid on the stage like swans on water, intertwining their limbs in a series of kaleidoscopic patterns to the yearning notes of Arvo Pärt.

Naked buttocks, although safely kept at a distance and encased by drooping trousers, were also present in Jasmin Vardimon’s Yesterday, which I saw last week in the same theatre. As the title implies, the performance glances back at the choreographer’s past works. But Yesterday is not one of those lifeless retrospectives we are often treated to in the arts world. In the piece, which lasts for one hour and 15 minutes, the old mingles with the new in a seamless, almost symphonic crescendo of now teasing, now lyrical, now powerfully dramatic and gut-wrenching images.

Yesterday was first seen last year at the Peacock Theatre, and thus makes a more than welcome comeback, for this is the sort of dance performance you want to see again and again. What I particularly liked was the way it highlighted both Vardimon’s creatively unpredictable inventiveness and her distinctive choreographic signature traits — qualities that were also evident in the Venusberg sequence created for the recent production of Tannhauser at the Royal Opera House, one of the best Venusberg renditions I have ever seen.

While performances such as St Pierre’s and Vardimon’s confirm that Sadler’s Wells is the undisputable and unequalled venue for cutting-edge dance at both national and international levels, Sum of Parts — the event I saw two nights before the ‘butt’ attack — confirmed the significant role that the same theatre plays within the local community. Choreographed by members of the theatre’s five associate companies for non-professionals, Sum of Parts gave a refreshingly new meaning to the notion of what, in a world plagued by restrictive vocabulary, could be referred to as an ‘integrated’ performance — although this was more a matter of combination than integration.

The seamless weaving of diverse skills, abilities and approaches informed a powerfully captivating and, thanks to Betsy Dadd’s animation, visually enthralling performance that highlighted the often-forgotten unifying essence of the dance medium. The enthusiasm of the performers, whether they were from the Company of Elders or from a superlatively spirited group of committed school kids, was something many in the profession ought to revisit.