7 Pleasures may be one of Melbourne Festival’s most talked about shows. The premise: 12 dancers performing entirely nude for almost all of the 90-minute run time. But titillation is far from the objective (or outcome) here. Danish choreographer Mette Ingvartsen, frustrated with the lousy legacy of the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s, offers a response to today’s “raunch culture” and the two-dimensionality of eroticism depicted on screen. By placing a dozen naked bodies on stage, 7 Pleasures allows us to witness, communally, the very intimate and very visceral state of ecstasy.
Ingvartsen has used nudity as an “in” – the hook into her discussion about the politics of pleasure. Early on, the dancers amass in a heap of human flesh, rolling and sliding across the stage and one another like thick-flowing lava. Gender and body parts are equally indiscernible, establishing a commonality between the bodies on stage and, by extension, the audience. We can see reflections of ourselves up there, regardless of age, sex or physique. In fact, the work as a whole seems generally unconcerned with identity; erasing the categorical distinctions and assumptions we so often make about sexual practices.
Mette Ingvartsen’s 7 Pleasures. Photo © Marc Coudrais
Pleasure, not sex, is the focus. The performers give us literal and familiar representations of sexual pleasure: gyrating, shaking and brushing up against one another in sustained, and sometimes humorous, sequences of excitement. Orgiastic images are formed by the group before their attention turns to their surrounding environment and the domestic objects on stage – tables, chairs, a pot plant. In a prolonged sequence of organised chaos, the dancers manage to electrify the entire space (including beyond the fourth wall) with their pursuit of ecstasy. An unrelenting track by Australian-born drummer and percussionist Will Guthrie drives the energy of this scene superbly, right through to its proverbial climax.
But the work also provides unconventional perspectives on pleasure through images that make us reassess our associations between nudity, sexuality and intimacy. What becomes abundantly clear is that pleasure, no matter what its form, is fundamentally selfish. Although there are 12 bodies on stage in almost constant contact, each one is preoccupied with realising their own desires. Ingvartsen has carefully avoided presenting pleasure as simply a two-person endeavour. Instead, it is driven by an internal search for satisfaction, whether that be in relation to the group or the surrounding environment.
In the third act, just as we become numb to the nudity, half the performers put on clothes. The action is as powerful as it is simple, triggering uncomfortable questions about dominance and sexual politics. As the audience, we are bluntly reminded of our voyeuristic role and the baggage we associate with nudity. This unsettled feeling is underscored by unnaturally-rhythmic grunting and an ambiguous movement score that sits somewhere between sensual and aggressive.
7 Pleasures asks some interesting questions about how we define pleasure and the way in which we find it. While the work largely succeeds in throwing up these questions for debate, there are fundamental challenges around performativity that are not fully addressed. Are the dancers actually experiencing “pleasure” – however that may be defined – or is it all an act? Ingvartsen has consciously chosen to present the naked, pleasure-seeking body in the theatre as an alternative to today’s screen-based media. But how authentic is the situation on stage? At times, it is clear we are watching the dancers perform pleasure, and the potency of the mise-en-scène is occasionally lost. But although the work may not offer us true pleasure, its representations are certainly acute enough for us to question our own very personal desires.
7 Pleasures is at Arts Centre Melbourne as part of the Melbourne Festival until October 22.