Body of work Choreographer uses nudity to focus on movement, expression and energy
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It’s mid-afternoon at the Rachel Browne Theatre and dance artist Irene Martinez is slithering, slowly, across the floor.
She’s deep into rehearsals for Serpentine, an original, full-length solo created by the award-winning Métis/Dutch-Canadian artist, performer and choreographer Daina Ashbee.
Serpentine by Daina Ashbee
Presented by Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers
● Rachel Browne Theatre
● Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 4 p.m.
● Tickets from $26.48 in advance at eventbrite.ca, also available at the door
● Advisories: full nudity, mature content, no explicit sexuality
Martinez is clothed, now. But Serpentine, which will make its Winnipeg première this weekend, is performed completely in the nude.
The piece is not explicit or sexual. Rather, Serpentine invites the audience to view the naked body not as sexual object, but as art form itself — an instrument of movement and expression. There’s no undressing, no big reveal; the performer, in this case Martinez, is nude from the beginning to end of the approximately 80-minute work.
“(Nudity) is something I’m constantly working with,” says Ashbee, sitting cross-legged on a chair in the lobby while Martinez continues her focused work in the theatre. “I’m really working with the body and the body’s skin and bones and energy. I’m not working with costumes or, like you said, ‘reveal’ — revealing is something so different than just being. Like being purely a body.
“I’m aware that there could be moments where something is sexual or sensual, or many, many, many different things when we see a naked body,” she continues.
“And if I am having a moment where I’m using that sexuality or objectification or something of the body, it’s because it’s intended to serve the work. So this for me is not a sexual piece at all.”
Ashbee has long been one to watch in the dance world. At 32, the British Columbia-based artist has already had her work performed on many international stages, including at the Venice Biennale.
But when Serpentine was created back in 2017, Ashbee, then 27, was in a place of professional insecurity.
“I was a young artist, I’d made my first piece and it was a very successful piece,” she says. “And so, my fear when I was asked to create a second, third, fourth piece — and tour — it was like, ‘Wait, I don’t know, was the first one really that good?’”
Ashbee called up one of her best friends, dance artist Areli Moran, who had performed in Ashbee’s first piece, and told her she was unsure about this new solo she was working on. Moran said she could be there in a week.
“And I said, ‘But the performance is in a week!’” Ashbee recalls. “And she said, ‘OK, well, just make it on yourself and I’ll pick it up. We’ll do this together. You’re not alone.’”
After three intense days in Ashbee’s living room, Serpentine was born. It’s gone on to be performed some 50 times over the past five years and is heading to New York after Winnipeg.
“One of the things that I love so much is actually looking at the audience and seeing how they are interacting with the performer, and then I notice that there are other people in the audience that are watching the audience.”–Daina Ashbee
The show has changed a bit in that time — including its performer; Martinez learned the piece from Moran — but some constants remain, such as Jean-François Blouin’s electric organ soundscapes, the use of oil to create pooling reflections in black-box theatres, as well as having the front rows of the audience sit right up onstage.
“So, they’re being seen,” Ashbee says. “I think for me, it’s because I’m working a lot with energy and energetic exchange and so it doesn’t make sense for me for all of the energy to be kind of narrowed to one part of the room. I want this exchange to be happening in multiple directions.
“One of the things that I love so much is actually looking at the audience and seeing how they are interacting with the performer, and then I notice that there are other people in the audience that are watching the audience.”
And audience experiences vary. “I’ve had audiences that get closer, like ‘I’m interested in that,’” Ashbee says with a laugh. “And I’ve had people that get up and they leave. And it’s OK. I love both. Both entertain me while I’m watching.”
Serpentine is, in many ways, a meditation on nakedness, and not just in the literal sense.
“One thing that I was really researching in the beginning of my career was the power in being vulnerable, and how much strength and courage it took to be vulnerable and open — to be naked with your emotions or learn how to express yourself,” Ashbee says. “And dance is such a powerful tool of expression. It’s a language. Movement is language; it’s expression. So for me, this was something that I really wanted to explore.”
Jolene Bailie, the artistic director of Winnipeg Contemporary Dancers, is excited to bring Serpentine to Winnipeg.
“I think that, for some of our audiences, it might be a push,” she says. “It’s definitely a piece that’s on the edge, and there’s something beautiful that happens to people when they’re on an edge.”
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and author of the newsletter, NEXT, a weekly look towards a post-pandemic future.