…and then he stuck it in my ear…

By a very large margin the biggest cultural event to hit London for quite some time was Dave St-Pierre’s show Un Peude Tendresse, Bordelde Merde! at Sadler’s Wells. Critical debate over the piece has been raging amidst tales of mass walkouts and rapturous applause. The Telegraph certainly didn’t like it, and the The Guardians wasn’t exactly glowing in its praise. However, and rather surprisingly, it found a small amount of favour with that notoriously liberal institution; The Daily Mail.
Tales of dancers rampaging naked through the audience, with one critic memorably describing having the rather unfortunate sensation of having someone’s member thrust into their ear, reminds us that there are still things that are capable of shocking us on stage. And, as is often the case, it appears that nothing is guaranteed to make the British feel deeply uncomfortable than the human body laid bare in all its questionable glory. Particularly when it is taken off the stage and into the audience, smashing the conventional boundaries that exist between performers and the audience and forcing them to take a much more detailed interest in the subject than they might have expected.

St-Pierre continues the growing trend for challenging the conventional relationship that exists between actor and audience. Director’s are learning that by finding ways to draw the audience past the traditional barrier of the stage, you begin to discover new mechanisms for involving them more closely in the action. The interactiveness found in Punchdrunk’s stunning, if flawed, Duchess of Malfi, meant that there were moments where audience members were left feeling they had some power to change the direction of the narrative.

In Un Peude Tendresse, Bordelde Merde! St-Pierre doesn’t just aim to break the conventions of traditionally staged dance, he means to create a piece that assumes a whole different compact with the audience. He wants the audience to view nakedness as a neutral state, one that should be value-free and without judgement. The male dancers who leap into the auditorium exist as state-of-nature innocents and the audience are challenged not to feel like voyeurs but to accept the dancers own child-like acceptance of their bodies. There is no doubt that St-Pierre blindsides the audience – they are helpless participants who must either sit there or walkout – but prior knowledge allows the opportunity to prepare for the assault on your preconceptions and the power of the piece exists in the tension of not knowing what could happen next.

He uses nakedness as a weapon to force the audience  to confront the idea that, rather than being the free-minded liberal individuals we like to think we are, in fact there are areas of our nature that we have marginalised. As a society, nakedness, whether as sexual imagery or just a neutral concept, has been pushed to the edges of what is acceptable, and there it remain; not discussed, not questioned and not seen. Whereas we can watch violence on TV and even practice gross violence in incredibly realised detail through computer games, it is much harder to see images of naked people in either format. There is virtually no nakedness, sexualised or otherwise, prior to the watershed, unless there is an ‘educational’ element to the show (such as The Sex Education Show on Channel 4) whereas soaps can contain storylines that often resolved by acts of rather extreme violence.

You can agree or disagree with the various codes of practice that has allowed a position like this to develop but the consequences can be seen in the reaction to Dave St-Pierre’s piece. Whilst the quality of the choreography apparently left a lot to be desired, it was hardly awful enough to cause such a large number of people to leave. The walkouts occurred because members of the audience were not ready to face such a direct assault on their values. And this was achieved through the immediacy of the piece, the result of taking the nakedness into the audience. In a time when it appears more and more difficult for people to shock and offend, it is interesting to see that one of the last remaining taboos is something that should be so innocent.

It is interesting to think about the different levels of acceptance to nudity and violence when thinking about the piece in contrast to the warmly-received but emotionally rather limp revival of Blasted at the Hammersmith Lyric earlier in the year. Sarah Kane was often regarded as a similar l’enfant terrible of her generation of playwrights; often baring her soul and life in front of her audience. However watching Blasted – with its procession-line of grotesque images- surrounded by rows and rows of drama students who were clearly going along mentally ticking of all the supposedly shocking moments of horror in knowing appreciation, it was not hard to feel rather let-down by the impact.  The play clearly suffers from its familiarity and much of its power is lost in knowing what is about to occur.

The same criticism can doubtless be  levelled at St-Pierre’s piece, after a while the audience will come knowing that they are about to witness an ‘event’ and with it will come a knowingness that can only detract from the power of the piece. The audience will not be challenged to confront their discomfit because they will understand the boundaries that are expected before it begins.

Perhaps that is the ultimate fate with all pieces that have the power to shock; ‘Hair’ famous nude scene must have been quite something when it was first staged but now it is thought of with some fondness of as a curious attempt to blend the hippie movement with musical theatre. However while it remains contemporary lets embrace David St-Pierre’s piece for going out of its way to force us to confront something that clearly can still cause us deep discomfort.

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