5 Soldiers: The Body is the Frontline (Salders Wells/live relay) & Naked Attraction (TV)
I watched this performance on Facebook, the morning after seeing Naked Dating on TV. I’m glad I watched them closely together, because, as a pair, they really do tell the story of how vulnerable and brave soldiers are.
The humanity of the soldiers is powerful in both renderings, but, for me, the creative interpretation and rigorous training of the body in the dance enables me to empathise the most. All corners were covered – team work, discipline, monotony, routine, coherence, obeyance, army as a military machine, gender, the individuals, isolation, camaraderie, fear, panic, terror and everything in between that portrays the complexity of being alive.
The stage set was simple and effective, the constant code displayed on the back wall reiterating the machine-ness of military procedures, that people are merely data now. Their descent reminded me of cherubim in a Michelangelo painting, and Busby Berkeley formations. Both relating to heaven and to hell, to the air and to the imminent ground.
The stage show benefitted from deep research and professional choreography, not to mention exquisite performances by all the dancers. The context is the cultural realm, not an entertaining TV show.
Naked Attraction on Channel 4 is a different thing. I shan’t make generalisations about audiences, why would I, because I watched both. It would be easy to dismiss NA as a cattle market, but having watched it a few times, I have become increasingly fascinated by the way the presenter handles the comments of the potential daters. They are also careful to mix up different cultures, sexual preferences and ages, so much so that I am constantly aware of that, because it is not often seen on TV. I don’t agree with the way it is presented in terms of objectification of the body, but hey, everyone is treated equally and there is a huge amount of respectful conversation and kindness in the way they speak of each other. I find this very refreshing, after the awful want-to-be-a-star programmes, where humiliation and jeering rule. It is also interesting that this dating programme with naked bodies of all shapes and sizes could risk being a bit of a wank-fest, but it isn’t. Without uniforms, we are all the same. And where the stage performance required a leap of imagination to picture the solider that loses his legs, the TV programme is real, there in front of the viewer, and his story unfolds later.
At the beginning of this writing I used the term empathy, but maybe that is not what these shows evoked. They are both about acceptance, accept who you are, what you have, that you are unique, but you are more than your body. They challenge our cultural obsession with how our bodies are, how they operate, how we judge them. The TV does that by beginning with the most vulnerable body parts and moving upwards, ending where most dating begins – with the face. And then the added experience of the voice. We don’t know what work they do, or age they are, until near the end. They are neutralised by the absence of personal detail, the assessment is purely about the body. How fit they are in terms of attraction. But in a machine-like way.
The soldiers in the dance are evaluated by how fit they are on different, more complex terms. They need to be physically fit to survive. That fitness is primarily based on strength and aggressiveness, yet the play reminds us that these machine-bodies are also sensory and tactile. Emotions are expressed more vividly in the play, more deeply, because of the skills of the dancers, producers and whole production team. Whilst the TV presenter of NA plays an important role in monitoring carefully how the date selector speaks.
My MA FA thesis many years ago was about the Digital Body and looked at Orlan, Stelarc and suchlike. They were bodies that wished to embrace machines, prosthetics and augmentation. In both of the above shows, the presentations provide the viewer with a window into the body as machine – as little more than machine – but then metaphorically cut the flesh, letting us see the vulnerable bodies within.