michael j. morris

NAKED WEEK at Denison University
22 February, 2016, 5:19 pm
Filed under: culture | Tags: , , , ,

At 12:30pm, as a small pep band plays “The Final Countdown,” hundreds of people have gathered around the edges of the Academic Quad at Denison University to watch as a small group of student bodies run naked out of the front of the William Howard Doane Library. These naked bodies streak down the steps, tear through a large paper banner that reads “LOVE YOUR BODY,” and sprint across the quad as the crowd cheers and gazes. I didn’t get an exact count, but it seemed like fifteen to twenty-five bare bodies amidst the hundreds wearing clothes; the whole event—the opening ceremonies for Naked Week—were over almost as quickly as they began.

My introduction to Naked Week has thus far been mostly in the form of rumors and myths: a long-standing tradition of students appearing en masse, in public, and naked all week long. This is only my second semester teaching at Denison, and my first experience witnessing this spectacle. Beforehand, I heard several different accounts of the significance of this event. For some, it is a festival of body-positivity, breaking with social conventions in order to affirm the inherent worth and beauty of bodies. For others, it’s been described as another excuse to party or to get attention. I heard one person say that it inspires them that people are so brave; another said that it just makes them uncomfortable. To be sure, the motivations and intentions of Naked Week and today’s opening ceremonies are plural, shifting, at times communal, at times individual, and likely sometimes contradictory. But as an artist and a scholar of performing arts, a reality with which I am intimately aware is that the effects of any performance, any actions, will always exceed any motivations and intentions. The potential effects of any performance will remain in part unpredictable, and will vary more than anyone can control. Rather than speculate about the intentions or motivations of those who ran naked in front of their university community today, I want to take a moment to consider some of the possible effects of that action.

There was such a specific temporality to the event: first, there was waiting. Having been told that the event would start at 12:30pm, a crowd had already started to gather at noon. Having worked for years as a queer burlesque performer, I’ve learned that there is a particular energy to waiting for nudity: anticipation, an edge of urgency that seems to intensify as it decelerates, moving slower and slower. Then when the band began to play, there was the announcement that something is starting, a prelude, a preparation for the act that would follow. Finally, the first naked body emerged, at first seeming to be a little lost, then as others joined, turning and moving swiftly down the stairs. Within moments, they had all appeared through the doorway of the library, and all that remained was a trail of naked body running across the grass. It was over and the crowd quickly broke away, drifting back towards their Monday schedule. It was an interruption in the regular timing of a Monday—an interruption for which many of us gathered, bringing our bodies together in order to interrupt—and it was an interruption paced out in specific timing. If we take the event as a kind of performance, and if we can understand performances as an experiment or proposition in how an action or bodies might occur, one effect of today’s opening ceremonies is a kind of temporal conditioning, in which naked bodies are anticipated, in which we wait and wait and wait to see naked bodies, and then as quickly as they appear, they are gone. They don’t stand still; they do no wait. They rush past, they do not linger, they are gone, and the interruption is over—even if the memory of the event continues to interrupt us throughout the day.

My initial reaction to the group of bodies was how young they all were. As a student action on a university campus, it isn’t surprising that they were all young, but youth became part of what we were invited to celebrate and gaze upon. With a turn towards how this event might present a meaningful presentation of bodies, we might say: we wait and wait for young bodies, and then they are gone, rushing past, barely here before they are gone. I found myself wondering if we would gather for a crowd of older naked bodies moving more slowly across the quad. There’s a relationship between the timing of the event, the age and ability of the bodies, and the ways in which both condition how we might view the nudity that we saw.

There were similarities and differences between these naked student bodies. Many were white or pale, a few had darker complexions. They varied in height and width. They curved in different places, had longer and shorter hair in different places, were small in some places and larger in others. This range of differences, even within its limitations, provided an opportunity to see and recognize how different bodies can be from one another, something we perhaps forget or ignore within a culture that constantly provides us with images of bodies that look similar or the same. We as viewers could then appreciate the differences as so many unique—and beautiful—variations of physical form. We might also judge, compare, measure, preference, and value some of the bodies that we saw more than others. The event allows for all of these effects and possible outcomes, celebration or judgment, an appreciation of variation or another scene in which to reiterate personal and cultural hierarchies of value, in which some bodies are viewed as better than others. In a sense, I hope, the event provided a context in which to critically observe and reflect on how we reacted to these bodies.

Nudity also introduces a particular challenge; it presents an organ-ization of signifiers that often passes as an object that is fully known or recognizable: gender/sex. It might be said that there were different genders on display, and that might be so, but I would rather say that each body presented a unique configuration of unique parts, and even in their nudity, the genders of these students remained opaque to me. However, when gazing upon chests and breasts and hips and hairy legs and vulvas and penises and wide shoulders and narrow hips and small hands and long hair, in arrangements that seem familiar, we tend to immediately read such bodies as female or male. We overlook or forget—or perhaps we’ve never considered—that in doing so, we are performing a culturally mandated act of interpretation, aggregating a set of fleshy signifiers to conform within one of two binary possibilities for bodies. This interpretation happens so swiftly, so automatically, that we don’t even realize that we’re doing it. This is one of the ways in which the performative force of gender gets applied to and circulated on the surfaces of bodies: how we see and make sense of bodies is often already overwritten with gendered assumptions. [And, drawing on the work of queer theory, transgender studies, and various strands of activism around gender, I would argue: attributing a “biological sex” to a body based on physical cues is also already a gendered assumption, an organization of bodies into a binary that supports a binary system of gender that facilitates a culture of presumptive, compulsory heterosexuality.]

In this sense, the opening ceremonies of Naked Week today gave the viewers multiple opportunities: on the one hand, we were given the opportunity to see the extraordinary variation and differences between bodies, differences that only fit neatly within two genders/sexes when we ignore all of the various ways in which they are different; on the other hand, we were given the opportunity to either unconsciously attribute sexes/genders to bodies based on the various attributes and physical features within view, or to suspend those assumptions, to look again—however briefly—at all that makes those bodies different, and to appreciate the failure of a binary systemic organization of bodies.

The spectacle was of course also an erotic opportunity. The basic structure of the event staged a kind of desire—masses of people gathering because of what we wanted to see, to witness—to gaze upon the flesh of other bodies. It didn’t have to be erotic; there are certainly ways of normalizing nudity, of integrating naked bodies into daily life in ways that do not solicit desire—even if the various parts and bare flesh of bodies themselves are already predisposed to desire and eroticism within our culture. I think prolonged exposure would be one way of normalizing nudity; seeing a naked body go about its daily life could be erotic, but I think the more we see of it over time, from this angle and that, how it supports itself, how it leans, how it sags, how it swings or pulls tight or interacts with mundane tasks, the more familiar and less taboo it might become. But as a burlesque performer and as a choreographer, I know that there are structural mechanisms through which we can and do generate desire. Anticipation, as I mentioned above, stirs longing. Waiting is a kind of distance, and across that distance of waiting, we reach for that which we came to see. Disappearance is another kind of distance, bodies receding across the lawn, barely here before they are already gone again, out of reach. Choreographically, this anticipation and vanishing solicits longing, and with those formal structures in place, bare flesh, the revelation of parts that usually remain hidden, are set up within an erotic frame.

So what then can it mean that the Academic Quad became a stage for longing, for desire, for viewing and being viewed, en masse? What is the significance of student bodies on display for other students, for staff, for faculty, for the outdoors, all organized within a desiring arrangement? Perhaps it transforms the space, makes it another kind of space than how it functions day to day. Or perhaps it intensified and made visible dimensions of the space as it always functions: a place where bodies gather and meet one another, setting the stage for all kinds of encounters; where bodies pass each other, glancing towards each other, perhaps longing after one another; where bodies desire to see and be seen, a longing that saturates so much of collegiate life.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that this event took place within a culture that remains largely misogynistic, a rape culture, a culture of violence against women and people who are assigned and attributed “female” based on their physical features. In an event like this, naked bodies are made visible within a culture that already gazes differently at the bodies of women, in which the bodies of women are often at more risk than other bodies, in which the inherent vulnerability and precarity of being a body is disproportionately exploited for women. And while there were many different bodies on display today, it is worth recognizing that those who were viewed and apprehended to be female or women performed an action than was different from those with whom they ran, different because the dominant culture already interprets the significance of actions performed by people who are viewed as women differently. As I said at the start: the effects of any action remain unpredictable and will always exceed their intentions and motivations. Perhaps presenting naked bodies that are viewed as women can function as an assertive feminist act, a reclaiming of public space with bodies that are in many ways often kept in private. Perhaps this presentation provided the viewers the opportunity to view these bodies with respect and reverence, in spite of the tendencies of our culture. And perhaps the event simultaneously recreated a familiar scene, in which crowds of people wearing clothes—many of them not women, many of them identified as men—gather to view other people—some of them women—who are naked and on display. The subversive or political potential of this act is haunted by the specter of a culture that puts women’s bodies on display for consumption—usually by men—a culture that objectifies and devalues those bodies on display, a culture that comes to equate “femininity” and “women” with less value, with objectification, with display and consumption.

The effects will remain multiple and unpredictable. Nothing I’ve written here should be considered a final word or an exhaustive analysis of potential interpretations. We might also think about the fact that these bodies ran, contextualize this action within the frame of sporting events and athletic heroism. We could consider the arrangement of the crowd gathered all around the edges of the quad, viewing and being viewed by one another far longer than any of us viewed the naked running bodies. We could think about how an event that is structured around a taboo—being naked in public—becomes a tradition, and the complexity that is generated by the concept of a taboo that is traditionally broken. The possibilities are countless. But I hope that my viewing and response can offer a critical perspective—a perspective that I hope will be joined by other such perspectives—as we consider the campus and culture that we are living and making and performing with and for one another. There is apparently a whole week of Naked Week activities ahead of us. For those of you at Denison, I hope with each event, you use it as an opportunity to not only celebrate the beauty of bodies, but also to critically reflect on what such events might mean, what they might reveal (other than flesh), and what they might show us about ourselves—those parts most hidden, those parts most bare.


This image is not from this afternoon’s event. It is borrowed from Carrie Burkett’s article describing a previous year’s event, “Hundreds streak for body image,” The Denisonian, February 25, 2014.


*There is also a helpful, funny list of “Dos and Don’ts of Naked Week” in today’s The Bull Sheet:
Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 4.25.14 PM

Autumn Quartet: 3 More Times
2 February, 2010, 9:21 pm
Filed under: creative process, Dance | Tags: , , ,

I don’t have long to reflect on the ideas that are spinning around “Autumn Quartet,” but this seems to be typical of 2010 thus far. Too many ideas, not enough time.

Last week we had two guests in our practice of the piece, and their perspectives and feedback were both fascinating and valuable. The most poignant thought I went away with was the ongoing question of how to situate the work in such a way that it can be experienced/appreciated as a practice primarily concerned with our (the four of us dancing) kinesthetic/spatial/personal experience of it. It is not concerned with the visual spectacle of the piece, or even a transmission or communication of our experience. It is concerned with our experience, whatever that might be, within the confines of the experience itself (the algorithmic score, the movement material/vocabulary, the space, the time in which it occurs, our experiences of one another, etc.). I have not yet found a successful way at framing the piece in this way without devaluing the presence of the observer.

The other lingering ideas I had about the piece after last week:

-Structural elements of the algorithm: I am thinking about the possibility of adding the score, a minor detail, that shifts some of our walking patterns contingent on the spatial organization of others in the space, how this transforms our experience of the space, our attention to one another, and adds yet another power dynamic of dictating spatial organization. I’m not sure if it will work, but it’s an interest.

-The question of nudity came up again. Why is it that we only strip to our underwear? How would it be different if we were completely bare? Are we as a group (the four of us) at a point at which we can be naked with one another/what might that mean/how might that be affected by the presence of observers? On a practical level, can we dance the movement phrases without our bodies literally getting in the way? If not, what might it mean that the movement material is “designed” for the clothed body, violent or brutal to the naked body? I’m not sure . . . and if full nudity were to come into the piece at some point, how might that be instigated? Do we discuss it again, make decisions before we start? When I look back at the score, it describes “the final state of undress,” whatever that might be, allowing for it to be individually determined and allowing for the possibility of full nudity. Is any discussion beyond that necessary? It is a question/lots of questions, not an answer.

-There is the lingering question of love.

-There is a question of pleasure. In my yoga class this morning I taught about swadhisthana, the second chakra, and the indication that pleasure/potential pleasure is always accessible within one’s experience, as one’s body. I began to wonder about this dance, and whether I still experience it as pleasure, if I am still “finding the pleasure” as I dance it.

We are only scheduled to dance the piece three more times. I’m not sure how these questions might be addressed in those practices. But as they have come up in my contemplation of the piece, I wanted them to be included in this bog account of its process.

Autumn Quartet: Bite images, etc.

These were taken last week after our rehearsal. I wasn’t certain whether I would post them, but as I read back through the various posts describing this process, it feels very removed from the bodies themselves. Something about these images brings the process back to a very physical place. I think of them as art integrating with life. Lingering bite mark after rehearsal.

I have also been working on integrating various text into what we’ve been working with as our soundscape. First were the previously shared quotes from Tommy Midas in Madison Young‘s “Fluid: Men Redefining Sexuality.” Now I have made connections to quotes by Jiz Lee in another of Madison Young’s docu-porns, “Thin Line Between Art and Sex.” I’ll transcribe those below:

“I think that there are a lot of similarities between art and sex, particularly with dance.”

[referencing Contact Improvisation]: “It’s about inter-relating with another person, or more than one person, in such a way that it’s improvisational, you’re taking cues from them and what they’re doing, and what they’re going to do next. You know, anticipating what they might do next, or what they might want next. There’s also a level of, like, a follower and a leader sometimes, so sometimes there’ll be, like, someone kind of, like, following, and the other person takes cues off of that, or visa versa, and they switch at any moment . . . I feel like it relates to sex because you can start off in one way and then decide, oh, actually, I’ll let you lead for a second, and I’ll take that cue.”

“It was called the Undress Project, and so I was dancing naked on stage, and it wasn’t sexualized, and actually they found out that wearing a little bit amount of clothing, like even rehearsing in bras and underwear, was more tantalizing and titillating than just being completely naked. And there was a real beauty and zen-like quality to performing completely bare and being exposed, and seeing that our bodies were this kind of functioning machine, where they eat and piss and shit and eat again, and they age and they sag and they live and die . . .”

“I found myself being kind of upset being on stage and being naked and people seeing, like, ‘Oh, that’s a woman,’ and you know, like, the size of my hips and you can see my boobs and to be . . . by a lot of reviewers being, like, ‘She this, and she that,’ and actually I identify as gender queer, so . . . and I had been packing, binding, and identifying as trans for a while, so it was an interesting transition to be okay with my body and be okay with what other people thought about my body.”

“So I got very comfortable with myself naked, moving naked, being seen by others and however they wanted to see me.”

I have also been considering the format in which this piece might be seen by outside observers. I have been questioning the necessity of having any sort of formal or informal performance/presentation since the start of the process, and I still have questions about the implications of presentation for this work. In so many ways, this piece really is about and for the four of us as a practice in which we engage, a dance intended more for the kinesthetic, spatial, and interpersonal experience of being inside of it rather than the visual experience of seeing the piece. And yet there is a sense in which the piece might . . . want to be shared? So I have been considering the possibility of personal invitations, inviting specific individuals to witness our practice, week by week rather than any sort of epitomizing performance experience. I haven’t quite figured out the details or viability of this approach, but it does seem like a way to continue to maintain a sense of intimacy in the process, emphasizing the interpersonal rather than the spectacle. I think.

That is my creative update on the Autumn Quartet. There are so many other thing about which I feel compelled to write . . . how the this piece is beginning to feel implicated in the post-modern period through its inclusion of undressing (I’m thinking again of David Gordon’s Random Breakfast, and Anna Halprin’s Parades and Changes). Maybe that will be the paper I write for “The History and Theory of Postmodern/Contemporary Dance” this quarter. In any event, the work of reading and writing and teaching now requires my attention.

Stripping and the new autumn project
5 November, 2009, 6:53 pm
Filed under: creative process, Dance | Tags: , , ,

One of the dancers with whom I am working on this new dance sent me this video. As has been mentioned in several posts before now, I have an interest in undressing and redressing (you can see my own enactment of this strip in 60×60 in my previous post). It has something to do with ways of looking and ways of knowing, the distinction between the actual body and the socially presentable body. I wonder if there is something in actual and socially presentable ways of undressing and redressing, action situated around the body rather than simply the body itself. I don’t think it is a profound revelation to realize that the way in which a thing is revealed or uncovered completely alters the perception of the thing itself.

There’s a part of me that wants to recreated the action of this video exactly within the choreography of this piece. How (and why) remain questions to be answered. But true to the form and intention of this blog, I offer it as extremely inspiring material for the work:

60×60 Dance

Coming 3 October, 60×60, an evening of new, original choreography to Wall Street Nightclub!

You can read a bit more about this event here.

For a longer post about this event by my friend and colleague CoCo Loupe, click here.

“Over 30 choreographers from around Ohio (including me!) have been commissioned to make an evening of 60 1-minute dances to 60 1-minute original music compositions . . .”

I am creating two new one-minute dances for this event, although I would be lying if I said that I knew exactly what I am going to do. The two track to which I am choreographing are extremely different. As of now, it looks as if the two pieces will be two solos, choreographed and performed by myself. I was hoping to create a duet for one of the tracks, but with the show so quickly approaching, I think time necessitates that I get into a studio with myself and figure out what these dances are going to be. These are my thoughts/ideas/questions thus far:

I’m thinking about nudity. Wall Street is an 18-an-older venue, and it’s unique that I perform in venues like that. I’m interested in what possibilities might be presented by the venue/audience restrictions. I have long been interested in deconstructing the disparity between the “social body” and the “actual body.” To be clear, by the “social body,” I mean something like the clothed body, the body as it is perceived through its social frames of clothing and make-up and hair product, etc., as opposed to the actual body that constitutes the individual. While there are absolutely socially constructed aspects to the body/individual itself (such as mannerism, posture, stance, gait, spatial organization, etc., all as ongoing performance of socially driven perceptions and expectations), those are aspects that are inseparable in each moment from the corporeal identity of the individual. It makes me think of something Judith Butler wrote in an article entitled “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution.” She wrote:

“Gender is in no way a stable identity or a locus of agency from which various acts proceed; rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in time–an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts. Further, gender is instituted through the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gesture, movements, and enactments of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self.”

Certainly their is social generated and driven content in the bodily identity, even at the naked level. And I am fascinated by this to no end. But what I am more interested in as potential source material for these pieces is the distinction between the regularly perceived social body (the body as we present it to one another on a daily basis), and the irregularly perceived actual body. Both have fabricated elements, but they are not the same. I am interested in how a one minute dance at an 18-and-older venue might potentially contribute to the deconstruction of the “illusion” of the former.

The question for me is immediately: how would this be different from stripping? how is it different from “nudity for nudity’s sake”? will this deconstructive process be successful in the span of one minute, or is our culture so at odds with nudity that it will simply be either shocking, or easily classified as something recognizable?

I’m thinking about runway shows using the body as a support for the display of clothing, and inverting that to make the clothing (or the removal of clothing) a support for the display of the body. Wall Street has a stage and go-go platforms, and countertops. I’m not sure how any of these might come into the work.

I’m thinking about the Judson Dance piece Random Breakfast, the first section called “The Strip,” performed by Valda Setterfield, choreographed by David Gordon. Sally Banes writes about it in Democracy’s Body:

“The first section, “The Strip,” was a dance for Setterfield. Dressed in a long blue velvet gown that belonged to Waring and had numerous small buttons down the front, long gloves with more buttons, a hat, pearls, and a fur stole, she performed a strip tease to “authentically brassy strip music.” Gordon says that, “She looked like Queen Mary taking her clothes off in public. She walked in a circle forever, taking one thing of at a time, all those buttons to open, the dress, the petticoat, a long-line brassiere, garter belt, stockings, bloomers, limping along in one high-heeled shoe, never breaking the rhythm of the circular walk. She was somehow extraordinarily genteel parading in that circle and dropping her clothing. She discarded all the clothing in a neat pile so that when she was done she could stoop down and gather it all up together in a huge bundle. The dowager empress had become a naked rag lady.””

I’m thinking about the difference between dressing and undressing, or undressing and then dressing. Both create a palindrome in time, but how might where you end up be different than where you began because of what has transpired? How is a clothed body different after undressing and redressing than it is before that process? 

I’m also thinking about the slow, sustained quality that my work can sometimes have, and how that might find unique expression in the course of one minute.

I’m thinking about Love Art Lab because I am always thinking about Love Art Lab.

I’m thinking about Clara’s solo from Sketches of Shame, because I just notated a part of it last week, and how that is still some of my favorite movement I’ve ever generated. I don’t know if those gestures/ideas will come into this work or not.

I know SO MANY PEOPLE who are involved in this show. It should be a truly exciting event populated by great artists. I hope you can see it if you re in the area. From CoCo:

“Please SAVE THE DATE for this incredible event! Original contemporary dance and music works …..60 of each….all performed in 60-minutes……at Wall Street Nightclub…..Details below!

WHAT? 60×60 Ohio

 Saturday, October 3, 2009

TIME? two shows: 7:30 pm and 9:00 pm

COST? $5 at the door

Wall Street Nightclub
144 N Wall St
Columbus, OH 43215-2800
(614) 464-2800

EXTRA STUFF? 18+ only (as per Wallstreet Nightclub) “