An image by Leonard Nimoy from his Full Body Project, from its exhibition at the R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, Massachusetts. Photo copyright Leonard Nimoy and courtesy R. Michelson Galleries.
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2007, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
“Any time there is a fat person onstage as anything besides the butt of a joke, it’s political. Add physical movement, then dance, then sexuality and you have a revolutionary act.”
— Heather MacAllister, founder and artistic director, the Original Fat-Bottom Revue, and subject of photographer Leonard Nimoy’s Full Body Project book and exhibit.
First published on the Dance Insider on May 15, 2007. To learn how you can obtain your own copy of our archive of more than 2,000 reviews by 150 artist-critics of performances, films, exhibitions, and books from five continents published on the DI /AV since 1998, as well as PB-I’s Buzz column of rants, raves, and news, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org .
PARIS — In my recent Flash Journal from this city of light, reporting on the physical discomfort inflicted on the audience by two successive programs from Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s company Rosas, I noted that even without a pain factor many non-dance-world people, particularly in the United States, are already uncomfortable with dance, and that a likely explanation for this is their discomfort with their own bodies. This discomfort didn’t come from nowhere; it has many causal agents, one of which is the media’s treatment of the body. Take the New York Times’s prudish coverage (in more than one sense of the word) Sunday of photographer Leonard Nimoy’s new Full Body Project, a photography story (never mind that the Times mis-filed the piece under ‘fashion’) in which the photographs could not be fully shown because, reporter Abby Ellin noted, “Their explicitness prevents the images from being reprinted here.”
Why as a reporter can’t you show the readers what you’re talking about?
Why is nudity from an artist presented in an artistic context explicit? Particularly when there is no sex involved. If appropriately applied to pornography, this word has no place describing the human body en soi.
Why does the Gray Lady — which some would posit as the most sophisticated newspaper in the United States — turn pale when it comes to treating its readers as adults, who are able to accept that in a story about photographs of nude full-bodied women it makes sense to present the photographs of the nude full-bodied women? Why does the Times instead choose to infantilize its audience by photographing the artist standing in front of the least revealing photo the paper could find, and even then with the artist’s head concealing the model’s breast?
Ah! It’s the children, the Times might say; we’re a family newspaper! We know adults can take this, but what about the kids? Well, I hate to play the Europe card, but I have news for you: I am currently looking at the cover of Le Monde 2, the Sunday magazine of France’s largest newspaper, from February 16, 2004. It features ballerina Sylvie Guillem, in all the splendor of her naked glory, in the air, balancing on a camera balanced on a tripod — in a self-portrait. True, in the cover photo, a profile view, Guillem’s long trellises cover part of her breasts. But in the — very artistic — portfolio inside the magazine, also taken by the dancer herself, they are not obscured. Might these photos titillate some readers? Perhaps. But titillation was not the intent of either the artist nor the subject (in this case the same person). The intent was simply to reveal herself — “at the risk of displeasing” the reader, as Le Monde put it in the cover line. (The etoile also appears to be wearing no make-up; thus for a performer, she is truly naked.) If someone part of whose business is creating physical beauty felt vulnerable to this risk, imagine, then, the risk taken by the women in Nimoy’s Full Body Project — not because they’re fat but because, well, who among us civilians is comfortable baring ourselves like this — no cover, no dissimulation? Neither they — nor the photographic artist — deserve the shame implied by the Times’s suggestion that they were doing something ‘explicit,’ with all the dirtyness that connotes in American society. The shame here is not on the models nor the artists, but on the Times. Even moreso when one considers that a newspaper whose promotion of the fictive causes of a real war lead to the deaths of a million innocents has no moral authority to imply that art created by innocents is profane.
And bringing it back to dance, and the discomfort many feel with it, there’s a correlation: In Europe, where there’s no, or anyway less shame associated with the body, dance houses are typically full; the language is not alien to people outside the dance world’s rarefied circle. As opposed to the United States, where dance is treated as the poor sister (the Times doesn’t even see fit to list its dance stories on the Home page of its web site), here in Europe it’s not just part of the culture; it’s got a place of honor in the culture.
Dance also has a direct relation to joy. Take a look at the Leonard Nimoy image we’ve reprinted on this page, inspired by Matisse’s painting “La Danse (I).” Is this about explicitness, or is this about joy — and body-pride?
I wish that in deciding whether to include unadulterated images in its story on his artistic and morally estimable project, the Times would have been guided less by its archaic ‘standards’ and more by Leonard Nimoy’s words to the Times reporter:
“The average American woman, according to articles I’ve read, weighs 25% more than the models who are showing the clothes they are being sold…. So, most women will not be able to look like those models. But they’re being presented with clothes, cosmetics, surgery, diet pills, diet programs, therapy, with the idea that they can aspire to look like those people. It’s a big, big industry. Billions of dollars. And the cruelest part of it is that these women are being told, ‘You don’t look right.'”
For dancers, whether aspiring or working, the implications are double.
Leonard Nimoy’s Full Body Project was published in 2007, and exhibited October 25 – December 15 of that year at the R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, Massachusetts.