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Monday, October 28, 2019

Nudity and the Work of Dimitris Papaioannou

By Jess Barbagallo

Dimitris Papaioannou—creator of The Great Tamer and other works of virtuosic dance-theater spectacle since 1986— employs nudity in his live performances. Among other things. His stagecraft, in the lineage of Pina Bausch and Robert Wilson, could be described as anthropomorphic; he treats his sets like bodies too. Ideal in their beauty and mutant in their potential, his floors are always gamely ready to be stripped. They keep coming undone, erupting in raised anomalies designed to unmoor his dancers. I don’t normally conceive of stages as flesh, yet all metaphors point in this direction.

The last vivid memory I have of a nude body onstage was at a bastardized rendition of Antigone hosted by well-known dance theater/performance artist Ann Liv Young in her Bushwick apartment. I entered the residence with my companion and a hip docent instructed us that the performance would not begin for forty-five minutes, so we headed toward the roof to look at the setting sun. Passing a room to our left, I saw Young naked from the waist up, holding a dog to her breasts. Nearly beatific in her Mona Lisa repose atop the poverty of an uneven cardboard floor, the performer has often been witnessed naked in her shows, embellished by variously colored wigs, mud, glitter, and face paint. In the frequency of her nudity she has stripped the undressed state of its shock value. On the roof of her building, a male critic glibly wondered after the necessity of her repeat antics—“didn’t Karen Finley already do this?”—inciting a gentle argument that continued back down the stairs.

To presume that one naked body is every naked body is the very height of a cool conceit. To risk individuating undressed bodies is to reveal how idiosyncratic desire actually is.

In Papaioannou’s six-hour durational work Inside (2011), set inside a room set inside a theater in Athens, there are many nudes of more opaque personality than Young’s, figures simultaneously alone but together in their aloneness; they make their way through personal scores that accumulate in collisions of mysterious togetherness. The installation’s choreography is described as “a simple series of actions, of humans returning home.” These actions are familiar and banal: a woman pulls a clean white sheet over her naked body. A shirtless man approaches a window and looks “outside.” As I watch video documentation of the work, sedentary in my bed, I marvel at these specimens. Trapezius muscles falling down backs make me want to run to a gym so that, over time, I may watch my own body change in front of the mirror.

Or, if one dictum of spectatorship is mirroring:

I may walk in plain patterns over my floor.

I may climb into bed with another naked body.

I may better sense the spectral traces that live in my architectures.

Like a hotel room in a suburb of Paris where I suffer a week-long flu while performing a production of Endgame at a nearby theater. My costume is just linen yoga pants, transparent enough to expose my boxer briefs and occasional flashes of pubic hair, as I prostrate myself on white marley before my scene partner. I am shirtless in this production, my chest bearing the marks of a relatively recent top surgery. The director Tania Bruguera has said of my pale body, mottled by cystic acne and the patchiest beard: “You are like a sculpture.” Inside Beckett’s cryptic text, I enjoy this sense of self that vacillates between animal and artwork, and it is theatrical complex as container which allows me this weirdly pleasurable limbo state of freedom, even as I am ostensibly trapped in our panopticon set. At night, sick and tender, I hobble to the toilet, delivering a performance of self-management that perhaps has been delivered here before.

As this story might illustrate, frame is sacred as a tool for organizing the chaos that a body in motion, albeit slowed and humble, might produce. In Papaioannou’s Primal Matter (2015), a duet between the choreographer and a single performer, a board or a table—the simplest tools of home— become the custom-fit canvas for the dancer under Pappaiannou’s hands. The objectified figure looks on as he is manipulated. His face says: Sometimes it is tedious to be a muse. Sometimes I do not know what is coming. To be attended to in this way … it is not necessarily to be understood. But perhaps the problem is not a lack of understanding between the performers, or between the artist and subject, or between the picture onstage and the public outside. Perhaps the problem is a surplus of the desire to know, or to achieve a result through the initiation of an intimacy.

In the space between public and private—the space where my abject self lives, between hotel bathroom and a hundred spectators—Papaioannou posits the proscenium itself as a mediating ritual of relief, in the temporary nature of its offering. There is respite to be found in the glow of his theater, where the imagination becomes material and concrete: it’s a magic trick for spending time with your own body, which might seem to speak a language you do not know. For me, Papaioannou’s stage compositions precipitate a boomeranging voyeurism, where I begin to feel as though it is my body being watched by me, and not the other way around.

I was once asked to wrestle in the nude for another live performance. Pre-Endgame. It was an adaptation of Plato’s Republic. I declined, only to find myself in the piece’s final incarnation wearing a binder and Spanx for approximately eight minutes in a questionably choreographed sequence under a roaring pre-recorded voiceover of a Socratic dialogue. I thought the silhouette of nudity would be less humiliating than the reality of my unadorned body splayed in all directions: my genitals, my belly, the breasts I no longer have. I was wrong.

The Great Tamer will be at BAM Oct 15—20.

Jess Barbagallo is an arts writer, teacher, actor, and playwright based in New York City. His plays have been seen at Dixon Place and New Museum; his writing in Artforum; he has toured with Big Dance Theater and Builders Association; and appeared in Harry Potter on Broadway, among other citations.

The Great Tamer photos: Julian Mommert
© 2019 Brooklyn Academy of Music, Inc. All rights reserved.

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