Nudity + Dance = What exactly? The critics on Olivier Dubois’ Tragédie

'Tragédie' Olivier Dubois - photo François Stemmer
‘Tragédie’ Olivier Dubois – photo François Stemmer

French choreographer Olivier Dubois’ dance work Tragédie has been creating quite a stir. All major papers attended, and there was quite a lot of commotion from publications not usually known for their interest in contemporary dance. Well it was because the dancers were, as my Grandmother would have said, in the nuddy. Always grabs the headlines. Even got me writing this.

As Graham Watts commented in his Dance Tabs review,

That nudity sells seats was yet again proven by the crowded throng at Sadler’s Wells. Never before can I remember seeing a queue for the gents with a longer line than that for the ladies as there was at the end of this show.

So it gets the (predominantly male) punters in and helps to balance the books; is this a good enough reason for putting it on? in The Financial Times bellowed a one-star ‘no’!

The event is a dead weight, doomed to sink under the burden of its own pretensions (both physical and intellectual), and having less dramatic significance than a simple fifth position in a ballet class. The closing assault on our senses with a deafening electronic bombardment and strobe lighting, while bodies rush over the stage and finally decide that enough is enough, marks a nadir of bombast even for those inured to the posturings of Euro-trash dance.

Nudity in dance gets far more attention than nudity in plays or films. It’s certainly more ‘in your face’ – quite literally if you dare go to one of Dave St-Pierre’s creations – and being that the audience’s attention isn’t divided between watching the performers and assimilating the meaning of a text, the visual aspect surmounts all. All those body bits which insist on following their own jerky choreography rather than that of the trunk, four limbs and head, get an awful lot of attention. As Mark Monahan comments in The Telegraph,

As one or two girls in particular spread their legs and grind their hips, you get what is perhaps most succinctly described as a right eyeful.

'Tragédie' Olivier Dubois - photo François Stemmer
‘Tragédie’ Olivier Dubois – photo François Stemmer

Zoë Andersen knows exactly the reason why these sort of shows rarely work,

On stage, nakedness tends to be vulnerable rather than sexy. Where film can offer controlled angles and flattering lighting, the stage is a big, exposed, chilly space. Unglamorously stripped, Dubois’ dancers are also blank-faced, lacking individuality.

And in her two-star review for The Independent she gives Dubois’ show the thumbs down too:

Lasting an endless 90 minutes, Dubois’ picture of alienated humanity is a labour to watch.

in The Guardian finds that for her the real reason that this show doesn’t work is the boring choreography,

The basic problem is that the piece remains so doggedly wedded to an aesthetic of protracted repetition; our stamina has broken long before the dancers break into full-bodied moves. Even when they do, it is in a crude and tedious version of Dionysiac catharsis: a juddering, swarming, writhing, leaping assault driven by manic electronic sounds.

Neil Norman, writing for The Stage, is more positive,

The voyeuristic fascination of watching naked bodies is finite; once the sexual attributes have been assessed, the eye moves to the hair and then the derriere – the shape, bounciness and movement of the posterior is surprisingly expressive.

Well, I’ll mull that one over. Jeffrey Gordon Baker for London Dance also found interesting moments,

When they finally devolved completely into orgiastic chaos, the effect was not shocking or indulgent, nor was it exactly sexy, but rather joyful, very joyful in fact, such as to even make you catch your breath at times… I felt I had come to love these dancers and their bodies, not just for their beauty or skill, but mostly for the sheer munificence with which they reminded me of my own childhood naked dancing.

So they are naked, they walk around a lot, and towards the end it all gets a bit frantic. in The Times asks,

If you are going to put nine naked women and nine naked men on a stage for 90 minutes you must feel you have something to say, but what, I had to ask, was the French choreographer Olivier Dubois trying to say in Tragédie?

'Tragédie' Olivier Dubois - photo François Stemmer
‘Tragédie’ Olivier Dubois – photo François Stemmer

Well according to Dubois himself in an interview with The Evening Standard, the tragedy of the piece is that “being human doesn’t equal humanity”; humanity needs to develop.

This is our human tragedy. In each of those bodies you can read the history of the world, a map of civilisation. It brings you to a deep intimate relation to your body and so to the world.

So there you go…

The Nietzsche quote in the programme says,

Through song and through dance, the human being manifests his belonging to a superior community.

But as Craine, in another one-starer,  retorts,

No matter what philosophical validation Dubois might aspire to there is no getting away from the fact that his show is pretentious, hollow and very, very boring.

Dubois certainly knows what he’s talking about,

I’ve performed a lot naked. Every time I was working with a choreographer they wanted me to be naked. Every time! Just me!

Hidden talents? But as Monahan concludes,

London has seen far worse examples of nakedness in dance before. But I still can’t help feeling that the best kindness a choreographer can pay his dancers is to ask them to keep their clothes on.

A thought that Mackrell echoes,

The most thought-provoking moment is the curtain call, when they appear fully dressed – and we see them anew.

Olivier Dubois with his clothes on
Olivier Dubois with his clothes on


  1. Sparkling says

    here’s a true feeling — the bodies are varied – some actually look like real people — but if they all looked like Roberto Bolle my feeling all the critics would have love it — including Judith Mackrell —

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