Saturday, April 24, 2004

The Undressed Project

Is Davis ready for nudity?

We’ll all find out on May 6, when MFA choreographer Eric Kupers brings his “Night Marsh” to the Mondavi Center Studio Theatre, in conjunction with “Tiny Sky,” by Jane Schnorrenberg, as the UC Davis Theatre and Drama Department presents, “Flood.”

“Tiny Sky,” a series of short dances based on the stories of Barry Yourgrau is described by choreographer Schnorrenberg as “much shorter little pieces, little bites. Little nuggets of things. They are all separate little vignettes. It’s like a dream kind of thing.” “Tiny Sky” (in which the dancers will be clothed) is a much lighter work and opens the evening’s entertainment. “I’m the appetizer,” laughs Scnhorrenberg.

“Night Marsh” is the finished piece which began as “The Undressed Project” three years ago at the Jon Sims Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Kupers began to envision this piece shortly after the tragic events of 9/11.

“I felt like with all the fear around 9/11, everything was contracting. People were saying ‘be careful--you’ll be labeled a terrorist.’ I felt we need to take the opportunity to expand and really be ourselves.”

The idea of an entire dance performed in the nude actually arose, Kupers jokes, out of his difficulty with costuming.

“I was thinking about my next piece and thinking ‘what do I do for costumes?’ I couldn’t think of anything. ‘Why don’t we just go naked?’ So it was really more whimsical. Then as I started to talk to people they would say ‘I’m not going to get naked--I’m too fat, I’m too hairy, I’m too thin, I’m too old, I’m too wrinkly, I’m too pimply, I’m too whatever...’ So many people who had these bodies that I envied were afraid to be naked, so I knew I had to address that with the piece.”

In fact, the work begins with a prologue, narrated by April Tayor and danced by Kupers, which explores the stereotypical view of a dancer’s body and questions whether someone who does not fit into the mold and whose body has its own unique flaws, can actually be considered “a dancer.”

“We use words in such strange ways, like the word "beautiful" for example,” Kupers muses. “One person said, 'That's really great that you're dancing naked. But you know, people really do want to see beautiful bodies.' Others have said, 'Some of the bodies weren't perfect, and then there were some beautiful bodies.' There are things that are so unconscious in the way we talk about it all.” Kupers work tries to show that all bodies are “beautiful,” whether they fit into a stereotype or not.

“We’re beautiful and we’re ugly at the same time. Bodies are these gorgeous things but they’re also weird. “

Lucia August, one of Kupers’ older dancers, is a psychotherapist in her professional life, who deals with body image issues in her practice. “I’ve been dancing since I was 4 years old,” she said, “and I was always told that I could never go beyond a certain level because of my body size. But here I am!” Though one would never pick August out of a crowd as a dancer, she is beautiful to watch on stage. She had difficulty at first with the concept of dancing in the nude, but she finds the experience to be liberating and energizing.

Kupers looks on his work as a piece of activism, and of bringing people together for a common goal.

“My parents were radical leftist organizers and I grew up in an environment of radical activism. I left that and got into dance, but this piece feels like a return to my roots as a community organizer. There was lot of group process that went into the things that we’re doing, honoring different people’s experience, how you use language to describe bodies. People working out the things they find difficult or offensive, and then going forth into the community. It feels like a kind of activism.”

Kupers credits MFA choreography professor Della Davidson for being his most supportive mentor.

“Of all my mentors, she has been the one who has stuck by me through this piece and really stuck by the vision of it. Many of my other mentors have been threatened by it; they haven’t been real supportive.”

Kupers’ challenge was in creating a work that transcends the notion of nudity. “Once you lose the shock value then what do you do? How do you sustain it from there on? It’s this weird paradox of wanting the charge around nudity to go away, to dissipate, but then wanting there to be a charge on the nudity from a deeper level. I know for me it feels like there is something very spiritual about being naked. I just feel a sense of purity in a way, but like clearness and aliveness when we take off our clothes in rehearsal. A sense of ‘this is it. There’s no hiding’.”

Kupers says that his work is loosely based on the archetype of Alice in Wonderland. As his “Alice” (Debby Kajiyana) steps through her looking glass, will a Davis audience follow her? Only time will tell.

“Flood” runs May 6-9 and 13-16 at 8 p.m. No one under the age of 18 is admitted without a parent or guardian. Tickets are available by calling 1-866-754-ARTS.