Roland Barthes, in a famous essay in Mythologies, claims that Parisian strip-tease helps to “inoculate” the viewers from eroticism under the cover of “the alibi of Art” and the “alibi of work.” That is, the strip-tease tends to ward off any outright sexual desire by both transforming the nude body into a pristine — even plasticine — art object as well as by professionalizing the routine through “the honorable practice of specialization,” (i.e. skilled labor).
Mark Morris took Barthes’ Mythologies as inspiration in an eponymous series of dances he created in the late-’80s, one of which he called StripTease. At the end of a performance in Belgium, Morris himself wagged his penis at the audience. The headline the next day in Le Soir was, “Go Home!” written in English so Morris would have no trouble comprehending the public’s outrage.
Jennifer Dunning, reviewing the New York premiere of Mythologies back in ’87, remarked, “The strippers who start as an exclusive community and then come forward as enactments of our fantasies are strangely empty shadow-humans by the end.”
Trajal Harrell’s recent dance/performance piece, Quartet for the End of Time, in the Schwartz Center last Thursday began where Morris’ success de scandale left off. In fact, the dance began not with human bodies at all, but rather with a series of eerily empty shadows and images projected on a scrim.
The absence of bodies on the stage made the audience uncomfortable as a prolonged display of still photos flashed on a screen. Several dozen snapshots flickered by, offering little narrative coherence until a sequence of red-washed, out-of-focus photos of a swan seemed to promise a developing motif. However, they too vanished, soon replaced by another series of projections on a scrim that was facing sideways to the audience so that little but a residual glare could be discerned.
By the time actual bodies came on stage approximately 15 minutes into the performance, the audience sighed with palpable relief, hungry for the dancing to begin. The performers strutted out, one by one, posing as if on a catwalk in what looked like fatally hip hand-me-downs from a Williamsburg thrift-store. While each dancer struck a wry pout at the audience center stage, the other three performers stripped entirely bare in the wings, putting on ever skimpier sets of clothes until they eventually came out nude. At first, one challenged oneself not to look at the costume changes, obscene as they were, even as the bodies undressing became one’s only recourse to obtain the flesh and movement for which one now felt starved.
In the most poignant sequence, each performer came forward shouting, “Who will take care of me when I will die.” The repetition reminded one that Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time — with its jazzy clarinet solos, jagged temporal rifts, and all-out jam sessions — was written and first performed in a Nazi concentration camp. The stripping thereby evoked the most de-eroticized routine imaginable: the gas chamber.
The act of stripping had been reduced to a mere tease of “real” dancing. For the bulk of the performance, the dancers lay prone on the ground in triads or pairs, slowly shimmying off their pants, shirts and socks in isolation behind the peepholes of the scrim.
As each one became naked, he or she would rigidly face the audience, full-frontal. As the audience realized there would be no more to the “dance,” a mass exodus began: In fact, more movement occurred as audience members scooted out of their seats on their way out of the theater than took place on the stage! So many people walked out en masse at one point — when the stage itself went bare for a minute — that afterwards those remaining to see the performance burst out in spontaneous snickers, as if they were unsure if they were sophisticates “in” on the joke or if the joke was really on them.
The slow, repetitive movements of this so-called “dance” were a thorough deconstruction of the strip-tease that felt like an allusion to Butoh — the avant-garde Japanese dance form that utilizes painfully protracted movements and gestural posing to address taboos such as the physical mutation of Hiroshima survivors. The pop music and movie references that were re-mixed into the soundtrack and slideshow, however, de-sacralized the performance, while also potentially undermining the choreographer’s professed effort at “sincerity.”
At the end of the night, though, all references and allusions had been stripped away. Most of the audience had been emptied from the room. All that was left on a cold, black, bare stage were human bodies standing profoundly naked.