It’s astonishing—not to say ironic—how unfamiliar the naked adult human body can look. Dressed in itself, it still seems to be wearing a costume, perhaps because cultural taboos prevent most of us from frequent sightings of strangers without their clothes (less true in the ’60s and ’70s).
Montreal choreographer Daniel Léveillé understands the tension between nudity’s essential naturalness and how it comes across in a public presentation. The five dancers in La Pudeur des Icebergs (a sixth, Mathieu Campeau, was injured and unable to perform) are naked throughout. The title itself is interesting; both pudeur (“modesty”) and icebergs convey a cool approach. Nudity isn’t flaunted, nor is anything else. The dancers gravely wrench or launch themselves into sudden big blocky moves as if they were learning a language by repeating its scrupulously primal vocabulary. Those not dancing often stand at the back of the space, lined up shoulder to shoulder in order of height, and watch the action alertly but without emotion.
The new work completes a trilogy, so its family resemblance to Léveillé’s Amour, Acide, et Noix, seen here in 2003, isn’t surprising, although its tone is even harsher. Stéphane Gladyszewski introduces heavy straight-up turning jumps, a slow tilting balance, and a hunkered-down simian stance that shows us his butt. Dave St. Pierre investigates a sudden swivel into a deep lunge, a sideways kick, a somersault. We will see these and other stop-action moves many times, differently positioned, as Marc Parent’s astute lighting colors them chill white or subtle rose. The same two or three Chopin preludes are intermittently heard in the distance—as if another kind of life were happening in another layer of space and time.
All five dancers move together only at the end. It’s some time before Ivana Ilicevic walks in, and still longer before Frédéric Boivin enters. Interactions have the same repetitive assertiveness as solo dancing. Over and over, someone is hoisted from behind into a sitting position, carried forward, and dropped—not always the larger carrying the smaller, and the woman is treated no differently from the men. Deviations or recognizably “human” gestures stand out as anomalous: Emmanuel Proulx spreading his arms wide; St. Pierre stroking crouched-over Gladyszewski, sitting up like a rabbit, or staring at Ilicevic until she moves out of his place in the lineup. Close to the end, two startling things happen. The dancers form a pile and lie there while Chopin becomes a little more tumultuous. Finally, St. Pierre lunges deeply close to Gladyszewski and poises his chin on the other’s bent knee.
The piece’s rhythm is that of a chess game. Every move and its relationship to others seem pondered—both self-motivated and part of a pattern. The performers’ strenuous actions are akin to a bread-and-water diet meant to infuse them with a purity that is fundamental yet neutral. Their naked bodies become slates on which our imaginings, questions, and desires can be written and washed away.
Julie Tolentino’s For You sets up other kinds of tension—between art and reality, spontaneity and prescribed behavior. Tolentino performs her 15-minute piece in a downtown space by appointment, for only one person at a time. But waiting my turn a short flight of steps below the three-sided gallery, I become a voyeur, able to observe some of what occurs through a curtain of transparent vertical strips and, on a lower floor, glimpse a distorted, high-angle video view of Tolentino.
Everything changes when I’m guided into the gallery. It’s a beautiful place to be—coolly lit by Lori Seid and including warmer, small lamps that Tolentino can switch on and off. The rear wall holds a projected sphere with drifting clouds and smaller circles of light flaring in subway tunnels (Rob Roth’s video). The sounds are less peaceful: rumblings, hollow footsteps. I’m sitting inches from the white bed where Tolentino tosses and turns, prevented by my role as spectator from soothing her. When she’s far away, pressing against the back wall, I’m more the conventional viewer, but when she paces from side to side, she twists her head to stare at me, and when I’ve complied with projected words that tell me to move to a chair by one wall, she comes so near that her hand, rubbing her arm, almost grazes my face.
She dances for me, but doesn’t present herself to me; her twisty, flingy moves are private debates I’m privileged to see. From a third seat, I watch her interpret the Joni Mitchell song I chose from a list before I entered. Her arms shake as she sits trying to lift her weight off the floor. Finally she pulls up a chair, looks at me, closes her eyes. I read anxiety in her face and think about touching it, but don’t. She puts a hand on my knee and another on top of it. Time stops. I put my hand on hers.
Joni Mitchell winds down, and Tolentino walks me to the exit. “Thank you,” she whispers, and returns to her bed to await the next customer. Only at this point does a connection to prostitution strike me, and I immediately dismiss it. This distanced yet intimate transaction is of course purer, and infinitely more complex.