Naked Hymns: An Interview with Doris Uhlich
On Thursday, 6 July, Austrian choreographer Doris Uhlich opens the 40th edition of Vienna’s international dance festival, ImPulsTanz, with a free, 10th-anniversary performance of more than naked. In the piece, twenty nude dancers play with the touch and sound of bare flesh, meticulously examining one another’s bodies, wiggling and wobbling around, and lying flat on the ground like starfish. Its premiere at ImPulsTanz was widely lauded for its distinctly open and explorative approach to nakedness onstage.
Ahead of the festival’s opening, Uhlich speaks with Lisa Moravec about the aesthetics and politics of nudity, being faster than the beat, and why she’s sticking with Daft Punk.
Lisa Moravec: Doris, what does it mean for you to restage more than naked in the very location and context where it debuted?
Doris Uhlich: It is very special to reunite with the dancers who performed it ten years ago at ImPulsTanz. more than naked was the first piece that I made with a group of naked dancers in relationship to music. It tries to celebrate the body as it is and to discover what it means to undress in the present. To return to this research, to my roots, is very inspiring.
Your choreographic work made an important contribution to the field of dance through its socially non-discriminating and non-spectacular approach to nudity. What is the relationship between nudity and dance in more than naked?
One dominant aspect of my work is the idea of moving the flesh. I don’t think so much about posing as about moving bodies to liberate oneself from social rules. For many people, it's empowering to undress and shake the visible flesh. The work fulfills a desire to think more about how you feel and less about what you look like.
How do you understand nakedness on the stage?
I don’t see it as a dramaturgical effect, but as a state of being on stage. It’s nothing special: We are all born naked, slimy and bloody, then we are cleaned and get dressed. We lose the sensation for nakedness, which has nothing to do with ideologies or provocation. It’s something very simple, and when you rediscover it, it can feel very empowering.
How does nudity impact the way people move?
To give one example: We shake our body fat, athletically or not, and thereby produce waves and vibrations. We conceive of the body as material and try to imagine throwing all our limbs in all directions, to let energy take over and generate new forms. At the same time, we also try to fill the space with our energies and to be seismic.
The connection between movement and sound is also interesting in your work.
Yes, the bodies make sounds with each other. When you are naked, there is a lot of potential to create a sound system with your movements, a form of language and conversation beyond words.
In more than naked, you perform as a DJane onstage.
Yes, I play a track list.
Is it the same one this year as from ten years ago?
Yes. I know, it’s very nostalgic. But I know that when the performers start to hear Daft Punk, it will be very emotional. [Humming: “Doing it right, everybody will be dancing”] It’s not up to date, but I kept in Random Access Memories, as well as the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Give it Away. I call them naked hymns.
You search for other movements, creating another presence, which is sometimes more powerful undressed.
We know each other through the practice of dance, and I remember you saying in one class that we should “try to be faster than the music.”
When you’re in the club, for example, you try to be on the beat. But when you listen a little bit deeper, you can hear that music is more than just the beat, that there are so many layers to it. There are often chords that are quicker or slower than the beat, and I really like to encourage people to listen deeper. I like to think of music as a trampoline for another energy, so that the dancers are able to fly away from it. Music functions like a partner, and it is good to be a little independent from the regular beat.
What differences have you noticed when you work with people who are dressed and people who aren’t?
It’s different if you sweat onto the dance floor or if you sweat into your clothes, just as some movements are easier with clothes and some are easier without. There are the practicalities, and of course you might also see or feel other movements when you’re naked. The performers also have a different relationship to the space: You slide differently, for example. You search for other movements, creating another presence, which is sometimes more powerful undressed.
What is your core interest in bodily movement practice?
To find movements beyond the everyday. It important to me to have a utopian place which has different rules and codes, and my motivation in every workshop lies in finding new ones.
After more than naked, you started working on Habitat (2017–), a series of large group performances with up to 120 people, which you stage in immersive and often unconventional settings.
With Habitat, we started to explore places where the audience and the performers are mixed, where the performers can get very close to the audience.
You use the word “we” a lot. As the number of performers that you work with has grown over time, do you consider your inclusive choreographic work a social practice?
There was never a social motive. The idea was to bring different bodies together, because the more differences there are, the more beauty I can see. I don’t exclude any bodies. I can also handle working with big groups, and I love being with many people, to create spaces where everyone is welcome.
What’s the difference in your experience between working with amateurs and professional dancers.
To me, it doesn’t matter if you are a professional or not. The moment you work professionally, you are professional for me. Of course, if people have studied dance, they embody different movement languages. I also see that to realize certain projects, I have to work with people who have studied dance or have a long-term practice with the body, which people don’t develop working on art projects for just one or two years at a time. The relationship you have to your body and how you let movement happen is decisive. How you can let yourself be surprised by what your body brings out in the archeological practice for a piece is interesting.
How has the representation of nudity as a performance form changed over time?
I think we find much more nakedness onstage today than in 2013, yet we have the same issues with the nude body in this crazy world.
The are many different kinds of diversity visible in my work. Some people say to me, “Doris, I like your spirit of nakedness.” For me, it’s a way to show viewers that people are more than their handicap.
On a final note, what does nakedness mean to you personally?
Nakedness has a lot to do with self-confidence. Not to only be naked in the sauna, but to be naked on the stage. But I would also not walk naked through the Mariahilferstraße [one of Vienna’s main shopping streets] in my spare time. That’s not my thing. Nakedness has a lot to do with what interests me as a choreographer.
DORIS UHLICH is a prize-winning Austrian choreographer, performer, and dance educator. Her work questions conventional formats and body images, and often includes people with physical disabilities and different backgrounds.
LISA MORAVEC is a writer, critic, lecturer, and curator, working at the intersections of the visual and performing arts. Her book “Dressaged Animality”: Human and Animal Actors in Contemporary Performance is forthcoming with Routledge 2024.
more than naked
MuseumsQuartier – Haupthof (Festival opening)
6 July 2023 at 20h45
more than naked
MuseumsQuartier – Halle G
8 – 10 July