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They'll make you look

The creator and nude dancers of 'Night Marsh' want you to think, too -- about the body, its frailties and our connection with nature.

June 16, 2004|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

But what do you call the dress rehearsal?

Eric Kupers, co-director of Dandelion Dancetheater, acknowledges that the standard term for a final run-through doesn't quite apply when a dance company is performing completely nude. "It's a funny situation," he says, with some understatement.

Yet the problem of what to call the final rehearsal is dwarfed by comparison with the issues raised for both audiences and performers confronted with the naked truth in "Night Marsh," the culmination of a three-year undertaking by the Bay Area-based company that it dubbed the "Undressed Project."

"Night Marsh," which recently had its world premiere at UC Davis, will receive three performances this weekend at the Electric Lodge in Venice. And although choreographer Kupers says some spectators have shown up expecting titillation, both he and his dancers say the piece is less about sex than about slippery sweat and ice-cold floors, less about eroticism than the vulnerability of the human body.

Kupers has sought to include as many races, ages and body types as possible in the 16-member cast. One 25-year-old dancer, Jacques Poulin-Denis, had a foot amputated after an auto accident and performs using a prosthesis. He jokes that his disability seems to fade into the background when nudity takes center stage.

A key to the piece, Kupers says, is fat -- a "body part" about which the dance world is notoriously in denial. "It reframes dance technique so it includes the soft parts of the body, wide hips and big breasts and big bellies," he says. "Fat can be a great partnering device -- you can grab onto somebody's fat to guide them around or hold onto them. It's been a really interesting thing to explore."

Plus-size dancer Lucia August, 51, agrees. "Our culture says we are supposed to be thin and young, and I'm neither," she says. She adds that she felt liberated by a "fat improv" exercise Kupers took dancers through during the development of the work; the exercise became the inspiration for a solo piece by August. "Suddenly my fat had a voice," she says.

Although "Night Marsh" was created in residence at San Francisco's Jon Sims Center for the Arts -- an organization that supports "artistic expressions of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer experience" -- Kupers says the piece is not driven by homoerotic themes but, rather, challenges homophobia with some intimate same-sex partnering.

Kupers, 32, who co-directs Dandelion Dancetheater with Kamiko Guthrie, is not inexperienced in using socially or politically charged material in his work. A graduate of the Los Angeles County High School for the Performing Arts, he met Guthrie when both were students at UC Santa Cruz, and the first dance they created together, in 1991, was an antiwar piece about the U.S. invading Iraq. They continued in the same vein when they formed their company in 1996.

Still, in the case of "Night Marsh," the choreographer's motivation was less political than practical. In a telephone interview, Kupers described himself as "recuperating" from a 2001 concert at Cal State Los Angeles when an idea for a new dance floated into his mind.

"I had some ideas movement-wise, but I couldn't figure out what costumes to use -- costumes are always mysterious to me, how to come up with them," he recalled. "And I said, 'Well, why don't I do it without costumes, just do it naked?'

"At the time, I was doing a retreat at a Zen center in the middle of the woods [Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in Marin County] and feeling this real strong connection with nature, and thought it could be a way to bring nature into the theater," he continued. "And once we started working on it, gathering people for it, it became clear this was going to be a very loaded and charged project.

"Everybody has body issues," said Kupers, who also dances in the piece. "There were a lot of people whom I had always admired, and wanted my body to look like theirs -- they wouldn't do it because they were 'too fat' or 'too hairy' or too something."

Kupers is quick to say that he is no exception to the rule. "I don't have a dancer body type -- now, at least," he said. "Most of my dance career I spent in constant fear of gaining weight. And then when I started telling all the dancers they don't have to diet, I want their bodies just how they are, I said, 'I've got to do this too, I guess.' I felt like it really helped my dancing, because I just didn't care anymore."

Instead of working up to a "dress" rehearsal, Kupers says, he started the dancers off working in clothes, and they slowly peeled off layers as the project progressed. There were a lot of intense discussions about the intimate nature of the work -- which, frankly, 23-year-old dancer Jezebel Lee could have done without. "How do I feel -- at first I thought, 'This is so New Age-y. I hate this,' " she says. "But it kind of grew on me."

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