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Art Gallery of New South Wales
January 7, 2017
From the corner of the room, Ron Mueck’s towering Wild Man stares awkwardly at me like some nervous, naked Colossus of Memnon. My only companion is a toned young man who, like the 12-foot high wild man, wears no clothes. I’ll admit, I cast him curious side glances. He gazes at the art, which gazes back. Gradually he warps, spasms, retreats into a corner and collapses. A series of distressed reflex actions sees him writhing across the cold marble floor, the living embodiment of Louise Bourgeois’ extraordinary Arched Figure that contorts in an adjacent room. At one point he comes within six inches of me and makes contact by staring into my eyes with an intense desperation. All this takes place to Schubert’s poignant G Flat Impromptu.
Ron Mueck's Wild Man (2005). Image AGNSW
The dancer is the remarkable David Mack and the room is “The Vulnerable Body”, the last of eight classifications in Justin Paton and Emma Chambers’ immaculately curated Nude: Art from the Tate Collection showing at Art Gallery of New South Wales and currently forming part of this year's Sydney Festival. It's a stunning, smart, insightful exhibition, but whoever had the brilliant idea of pairing it with work by Sydney Dance Company deserves a medal, for this is one of those truly unique, one-off events that will stay with you long after a festival has added up its box office receipts.
If that first encounter feels portentous and very, very serious – and I’ll confess that moment of ‘contact’ affected me powerfully – Nude Live is not as dark as it might sound. SDC Artistic Director Rafael Bonachela is blessed with an innate sense of playfulness ensuring that for every piece of choreography reflecting the psychological baggage that seems to come with our naked bodies there is a counterweight in a moment of laughter at the more ludicrous aspects of the various taboos surrounding nudity.
Entering the exhibition, the seven dancers strike you gradually, their nakedness almost irrelevant at first. One man is tightly curled on a plinth, bottom up, two women browse the art, just like us, the fact that they are unclad simply a tangential element. Others stand guard, alongside the regular gallery staff, living X-rays of their uniformed brethren. Secret doors allow them to come and go. As the audience fans out through the exhibition, the dancers can manifest themselves at any moment.
Sydney Dance Company. Photos by Pedro Greig
In “Body Politics” a fierce battle of the sexes takes place between a tall man (Izzac Carroll) and a woman (Olivia Kingston). A tight sequence of stretches and lifts sees them exploring each other’s bodies one moment, wrestling each other into submission the next. Barkley Hendricks’ strikingly aristocratic portrait of a black man, Family Jule: NNN (No Naked Niggahs) presides approvingly over the scene as does Nick Wales’ effective electro-ambient music.
One of the beauties of Nude Live is that no two people could possibly have the same experience. Moments of one-on-one intimacy mingle with the communal, but at any time you may be aware of others in a room opposite encountering who knows what. In “Paint as Flesh”, what started as a solo by Mack on a bench in front of Bacon’s painful Triptych – August 1972, becomes a whole lot more. As Mack's body melts into shapes suggested by the artist’s morphing figures, the six other dancers (Carroll, Kingston, Marlo Benjamin, Zachary Lopez, Fiona Jopp and Oliver Savariego) join the audience, sitting or standing, before taking our hands with warm smiles and rearranging us around the room like so many prosaic works of art. A beautiful and magical moment. The sculptural septet that follows, to a soaring soprano aria from Adriana Lecouvreur, is full of delicate bends and turns capturing the elegance of the classical nude.
Meanwhile, in “Real and Surreal Bodies” Carroll stretches out on a plinth beneath Stanley Spencer’s brutally honest Double Nude: The Artist and his Second Wife, his languid genitals intimately paralleling the artist’s own. He’s joined by Kingston who arranges and rearranges Carroll's inert, vaguely compliant limbs in a comedic duet of love and lust. Never satisfied, she clamps his hands to her breasts and buttocks, finally giving up in mock despair. It’s clever, funny and painfully real, and neatly offset by Mahler’s most famous Adagio with its resonances of Mann's Death in Venice.
I missed the beginning of what went on in “The Private Nude”, but it involved three dancers (Carroll, Jopp and Benjamin) sporting around a bench occupied by two ‘volunteers’. The teasing balancing of a pair of breasts or a cock and balls on top of the furniture was a riot, and coming late in the hour-long programme not at all shocking in its more confronting aspects. Similarly, in “The Modern Nude” I just caught the end of an extraordinary display of rippling sinew and raw anatomy played out by Carroll in front of David Bomberg’s machine age The Mud Bath.
The grand finale was a fiercely dynamic duet for Jopp and Benjamin to the Dances of the Young Girls and Ritual of Abduction from The Rite of Spring. Hands locking down on genitals, buttocks and breasts, Bonachela’s provocative and earthy choreography was tailor-made for the sexual violence inherent in Stravinsky’s seminal score.
Profoundly thought provoking, Nude Live is not just a refection of art through dance, it’s a two-way mirror where the art itself is enhanced, while an audience is permitted to see something more of itself through the prism of movement, sculpture and painting. It’s also a rewarding chance to take contemporary dance out of the studio and into the ‘real world’. Bonachela's choreography is at its most creative, an endless series of flights of fancy, and to be so close to such physical talent with barriers bravely down is a rare privilege. A genuine one off, I’d imagine the show is a guaranteed sell-out. If you can, though, this really is a kill for a ticket event.