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The Buzz, 2-24: Body Trouble
Why Rockwell was Right; Why the Joyce is Wrong

By Paul Ben-Itzak
with a letter from Will Barker
Copyright 2005 The Dance Insider

The Bare Truth

Regarding yesterday's discussion of recent columns by John Rockwell in the New York Times, specifically his February 16 review of Toronto Dance Theatre's performance of Christopher House's "Sly Verb" at New York's Joyce Theater, Will Barker writes:

I don't know Paul, maybe I'm just outing myself as a hetero here, but after seeing this piece last Saturday, I too was wondering where all the naked people were. We were strongly warned about nudity when we bought the tickets, the Times published advance notice that the dancers would be baring themselves, and one of the ushers at the Joyce gave me a head's up as I found my seat. My question is: Why this piece?

Nudity is so common in dance that to me it's barely worth mentioning. Why make such a big deal about a piece with only a few tentative flashes? Maybe because the whole performance was so tentative. From reading the first Times article I got the impression that the dancers weren't quite convinced that they need to be nude in this piece, and I think it showed.

Maybe the naked bodies were there more for the publicity than the meaning, because they appeared seemingly at random. Or, if anything, to show how gutsy they are. But if this is what passes for brave, we should award a medal to the dancers who work for RoseAnne Spradlin, or Sasha Waltz, or to Julie Atlas Muz for G-d's sake, who was naked for the entire time during her recent show at P.S. 122.

Overall I thought that "Sly Verb" was extremely self-conscious, nude scenes included. The men were much more game than the women, who, when nude, were usually careful to turn away demurely from the audience. And I understand, because he had to tell us, that the choreographer was looking to convey a sense of self, and skin, and consciousness. To my mind, it was as if he set out to create a difficult, thought-provoking piece, and had to remind himself to add the weird part, the naked part, the whimsical part, the scientific part, and lest we forget, the ubiquitous video part. (No dance piece these days is complete without an ugly bank of video monitors, or a grainy home movie projected onto the dancers.)

I know the point of this thread is to bash John Rockwell of the Times, not to critique the dance, so I suppose I digress. But to anyone who saw this piece, the review was spot-on. You could say (Rockwell) took the wrong angle in his critique of "Sly Verb," but he is right about his point: that regardless of its published intentions, this show misses its mark.

Paul Ben-Itzak responds: The point of the Rockwell Files, a new sub-division of the Buzz, is not to bash John Rockwell, but to challenge what appears to be his attempt, in some articles, to re-write the standard for critiquing dance into, among other things, a body standard. Having not seen "Sly Verb," I of course can't enter into a discussion on whether or not Rockwell missed the mark in his review of the piece. But I can say that the reader who took him to task for it in yesterday's column was not looking at this article in isolation. His "Sly Verb" review was preceded by an already infamous essay, "Dance, 10, Looks, 3" in which the New York Times's chief dance critic essentially complained that there aren't enough babes in ballet. (Click here for more on that.) Following on the heels of this complaint, it's no wonder that his writing of "Sly Verb" that "'Tease' comes to mind because there is precious little nudity and not even much touching" might be taken as a complaint that he wasn't getting enough T&A rather than a legitimate criticism of the shortcomings or mis-explained intentions of the work.

But Will Barker touches (so to speak) on an even larger context, which I'd like to amplify, when he reports on all the Joyce's warnings about nudity. It's frankly a longtime embarrassment that a theater many consider the leading modern dance venue in the United States -- and a theater in the putative dance capital of the US -- is so hung-up on nudity. By stating, as it does on its Web site, that the Toronto Dance Theatre performance "Contains full male and female nudity," the Joyce is in effect stacking the deck or, if you prefer, skewing the audience's perceptions before the curtain even goes up. And this is not a one-off. The Joyce routinely 'warns' potential ticket-buyers that certain Pilobolus performances are 'family-friendly,' implying that others are 'family-hostile' -- presumably evenings featuring primal dances like the Pils' signature work "Day Two," or playful pieces like "Untitled," a.k.a. the Tall Women's Duet. And yet, often as not, it's these very works which are the company's most playful and thus dances that speak so purely to kids. I thought of this while watching Vera Mantero's "Olympia" last season at the Theatre de la Bastille here in Paris. Being a tribute to and comment on the seminal Manet painting, the piece was performed entirely in the nude (not counting a pair of stilettos) by the choreographer, and yet a) the theater did not feel compelled to issue a warning, b)the woman sitting next to me did not blanch at all that she had brought her eight-year-old daughter with her, and c)the eight-year-old was clearly entertained. The Joyce's obsession with nudity -- and its more-or-less overt suggestion that a dance that contains it is not family-friendly -- risks further stigmatizing kids about the human body, depriving kids of FAMILY-FRIENDLY dance, including some who might grow up to be choreographers (my colleague Ben Munisteri wrote in these pages in 2000 that "it was at a 1985 performance of Pilobolus's 'Day Two' that my own novice pursuit of dance was finally and irrevocably galvanized."), and throwing perhaps well-meaning critics like my colleague Mr. Rockwell off track.

Got a Rockwellism or something else buzzing under your bonnet? E-mail the Buzz at paul@danceinsider.com.



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