The Melbourne Festival offers up a joyous, provocative embrace of body politics, nudity and sexuality in society today.

Twelve naked dancers, bodies interwoven to form a single organism, move across the stage like molten lava. Later they engage in a playful “object orgy” as they explore the erotic properties of inanimate objects like a table and lamp in a spoof of sexualised advertising that uses desire as a marketing tool.

When Jonathan Holloway, Artistic Director of the Melbourne Festival, saw 7 Pleasures in Zurich he found it “absolutely gob-smacking”. Describing it as “the single best piece of dance” he saw last year, he knew immediately that he wanted it in his 2017 programme.

Mette IngvartsenChoreographer Mette Ingvartsen. Photo © Danny Willems

The work was created by Danish dancer/choreographer Mette Ingvartsen with the dancers. Now based in Belgium, Ingvartsen studied at PARTS, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s renowned dance school in Belgium – “that was a very important period” – and has been choreographing since 2002.

Premiered in Graz in 2015, 7 Pleasures is part of an on-going series called The Red Pieces in which Ingvartsen explores issues around the body, sensuality, sexuality, nudity and privacy, and how they relate to the public sphere.

Chatting to Limelight about 7 Pleasures, she says: “The performance has to do with thinking about the body and the politics of the body in relation to pleasure, and how this is operating in our society at large. But also in relation to how privacy has become something that is now exposed all over social media, or how pornography has become widely acceptable even to people of a very young age.”

7 Pleasures. Photo © Marc Coudrais 

After “a little surprise introduction”, she says the first section is “a calm thing that allows people to tune in with the piece; to come closer to looking at naked bodies but not being so busy with recognising individuals in the group.”

“What we do is we try to imagine that all our bodies are fluid or liquid – we call it viscosity – and then we work with this idea of touching each other but [as] if we were a fluid traversing the space. It has nothing to do with explicit sexual representation but more to do with how our bodies touch in very intimate ways that are not necessarily sexual. People sometimes speak about it looking like lava or a wave or other associations connected to nature, even though as a group we were more talking about a bio-technological liquid, which can crawl up a surface as well as down.”

From there, 7 Pleasures explores seven roles of pleasure and how perceptions of nudity and sexuality have changed over time. The sound world is a vital, visceral element. Featuring percussion music by Will Guthrie and a soundscape by Peter Lenaerts, with whom Ingvartsen has collaborated for 15 years now, it plays with contrasting rhythms from the pounding to the extremely quiet. “There is also a vocal part where we work with rhythm as a vocal expression, all connected to the sounds of sex or rhythms of sex, stylised in a way that also makes it into a choir,” says Ingvartsen.

The performance takes place on a set, which she describes as “an exploded living room. It has a table, chairs, a sofa, armchairs, a plant and some lamps, but it’s not placed in a realistic manner – more like an exploded version so the objects are almost performing something by themselves one by one.”

“A lot of the piece has to do with interacting with the furniture and the objects in the room. It was important that they were everyday objects. We all know what it feels like to sit on a couch. Then basically what we do is turn the use of that object into something else, so that the sensation of the object itself is revealed. So, for example, when you lick a table you can somehow imagine the metal part being colder than the wooden part so it gives you sensations related to temperature and texture and sensation,” Ingvartsen says.

The piece looks at consumerism, and how desire is used in advertising – “so if you buy this product, you will feel amazing, or you will have this or that sensation. This happens in a very explicit way when you see something like a Magnum commercial, but I think it is also happening on other more subtle levels. So, we have something called ‘the object orgy’ in the piece and there we try to think of inanimate things having sexual potential,” says Ingvartsen.

“So, we work with these ideas that come from commercials, which over-sexualise things. We really go for it – we think what it could be for that object to feel pleasure or give pleasure, like licking a table or biting a plant. We experiment to see what actually happens when we do what the commercial industry is doing. We try to do it very seriously but it does create a certain absurdity that is also funny and somehow inventive.”

7 Pleasures plays at Arts Centre Melbourne, October 18 – 22 as part of Melbourne Festival.