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The Enlightened Vulnerability of Nudity in Paige Barnes’ Naked

Paige Barnes in Naked
Photo by Marc Carter
Paige Barnes showed that nudity might be the best costume a dancer can wear. With her performance of Naked this Tuesday, August 20, Barnes and the illustrious musician Evan Flory-Barnes created a different world within the many unique walls of Vanessa DeWolf’s Project: Space Available. The performance became an alternate universe where the helicopter-shaped leaves that fall from trees are called “maple keys,” where dust gets in the nose and the eyes, and where the female body is not on display, but is in use as a powerful tool of communication.
The female body, however, was not the first image to greet the purposely small audience. Instead, it was Flory-Barnes’s solid, towering presence. He leaned almost casually against a white support beam, his voluptuous upright bass singing out arhythmic rhythms. Below him, Barnes knelt on the white square of the floor, surrounded by piles of maple keys, her only clothing a white mesh-like mask. She swept her arms in small and large arcs, creating piles of the keys. Sometimes she made a bed of them and lay down. They crunched under her weight.
Barnes was low to the ground and the audience watched from above, as though she were a secret ritual on display for an uncomprehending crowd. This sense of vulnerability was fleeting, and her movement became stronger as she stood, sweeping her arms in bird-like arcs. Without a single layer of clothing or self-doubt to cover her, the mask itself seemed to smile knowingly.
Later, she stood in front of a full-length mirror covered in red paint. The audience seemed to at once admire her beauty and chide themselves for doing so. But she did look beautiful: the graceful curves of her hips and buttocks were softened and highlighted by the red paint. However, it seemed that the point of her nudity was not to show how beautiful she was, or how sexy she could move. There was no overt sexuality about her movement vocabulary, nor her intention. She was simply a person in a body, humble but not cowering, without frills, self-consciousness, or self-indulgence.
Barnes’s enlightening (and enlightened) vulnerability suggests that nudity is the only costume she could have worn. In fact, it may even suggest that nudity is the only costume any dancer should wear. Nudity offers a particular view of the human body where all the muscles are visible, revealing the incredible machinery beneath the skin. That Barnes displayed this machinery without seeming sexy is empowering for women and men alike because she offered an alternative to the normative depiction of women’s bodies. Perhaps through dance like this, nudity — particularly female nudity — could be separated from sex. Perhaps the future of dance could be similar to ancient Greek and Roman sculptures, where women and men were always nude, and where nudity drew artistic intention and audience gaze not toward the vulgar, but toward the divine.

There is much more to see with Naked. Barnes will present the same score for six nights total (through August 25), but with a different musician each night. Her other collaborators include Beth Fleenor, Samantha Boshnack, Julian Martlew, and Jeff Huston. All six evenings include glowing lights by Amiya Pennebaker-Brown. One might be tempted to watch each evening to see how the mood of the piece changes with each musician, or just to take it all in for a single evening. Only ten people are allowed per performance and email reservations are required. RSVP to to attend. Both Tuesday and Wednesday nights performances were sold out, so get be sure to reserve a spot soon.