Something of the night
A piece of contemporary dance performed by strippers? As the director behind Aalst returns to Scotland, Kirstin Innes investigates his latest production, Nightshade
It’s an intriguing premise: commissioning seven of the most exciting young choreographers in Europe to create a striptease, working with real strip artists rather than professional dancers. Definitely worthy of a few good tabloid headlines . . . ?
‘Yes,’ says Pol Heyvaert, director of Belgian theatre company Victoria, wearily. ‘There was a huge reaction from the [Belgian] press when we first performed it. Everybody was very interested, and I don’t know that they would have been if they thought it was “real theatre” or “real dance”.’
For all the sensationalism in the premise, those seeking cheap thrills or a spot of frothy tassel-twirling might be better off elsewhere. The last production Heyvaert directed in Scotland was Aalst, an unflinching, harrowing collaboration with the National Theatre of Scotland (itself adapted from Victoria’s original production), which saw David Mackay and Red Road’s Kate Dickie play a couple who had murdered their children. Nightshade looks even less prone to timidity.
Only two of the seven striptease pieces present what a Scottish audience might understand as a conventional striptease. Johanne Saunier’s piece focuses on Gidi Meesters, the only male performer in the production, every inch the oiled-up Chippendale from his well-stuffed white briefs to the jacket slung over his shoulder. Alain Platel (also known to Tramway audiences for his involvement with Les Ballets C de la B) directs Caroline Lemaire’s strip through imagery - she’s placed in black nylon underwear and holdups, weighted down with scarlet shoes like giant, predatory lobster claws.
‘Both of these choreographers use the iconography of the male and female stripper, but they subvert them in very different ways. But in another piece a very young looking girl is forced to perform a strip lying down, and it is very uncomfortable, I think, for the audience,’ says Heyvaert. ‘Most of the pieces have become politicised like this. If you ask a choreographer to create a piece with a girl who strips, you force them to think about exploitation, about the political angle.’
The company spent a large part of the past year tackling what Heyvaert describes as ‘the ugly side’ of the industry. ‘At first, when trying to find the dancers, we held real auditions, but had to stop very quickly. For these girls, often ‘audition’ means something very different. An ‘audition’ is often a cover for meeting the girl on her own time, a transaction conducted for money, you know?’ He is also quick to stress that the kind of stripping most of his dancers engaged in in their previous jobs is worlds apart from the current vogue for sequinned, stylised burlesque promoted by Dita Von Teese and her acolytes.
Heyvaert says, ‘In Belgium, as in the rest of the world, strip clubs don’t really exist any more - they are lapdancing bars, and what happens there is completely different from what we think of as the very glamorous striptease.’
‘And the culture of the strip clubs is denied, as it is in most cities. It exists outside of regular life; very much a part of the night. So people don't talk about it seriously.
‘I think most of the performers in Nightshade first got into stripping because they wanted to use their bodies to tell stories, as an actor tells stories. They wanted to do more than just get naked, and many of them were a little bit disappointed in this expectation.’
Eventually, Victoria found their performers through contacts and friends of friends. One of the performers is Sarah Moon Howe, who worked as a stripper between the ages of 22 and 30 (she’s now 34). She made a film about her experiences, Don’t Tell My Mother, mostly recorded backstage at the clubs she was stripping in on a Super 8 camera. The film has been selected for film festivals all over the world and is what brought her to the attention of Victoria.
Her research for the film helped inspire her contribution to Nightshade. She explains, ‘The story of my piece in Nightshade is the story that we found in the cabarets and strip clubs. Wim (Vandekeybus), the choreographer, was not interested in the striptease at first - he wanted me to tell him stories about the girls, and about the men. We talked for hours.
‘At first, I appear wearing a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, and I talk to the audience. I pick out individual men and put stereotypes on them. “This one thinks about me when he makes love to his wife,” I say. “This one wants to save me.” I pick my men well - recently, we performed the show and there was a man sitting in the front row with opera glasses. In the front row! So I said to him “you want to see me naked, but even when I am naked, you won’t be satisfied, you will want to see more and more.” I didn’t see him use his opera glasses after that!’
What Howe found most refreshing about the production was that it gave her the opportunity to have a voice. ‘I started stripping when I was a psychology student, because I felt invisible. I had a need to be seen very quickly, or else I would be dead. I passed a stripclub with a sign saying they were looking for dancers and just started from there - but the thing about the striptease is you cannot speak. The girl has to be silent. Nightshade lets me speak - at last I can tell the audience what I think. And I feel respected now, too. In the clubs, nobody takes care of you. You or another, it is all the same - they just want to see you naked.’
‘In the beginning I didn’t understand why the public reaction to the idea of striptease in a theatre was so emotional - why this nudity was in any way different to all the other nudity you see on stage these days,’ says Heyvaert. ‘But then, a couple of weeks ago we were in Spain, and there were children in the audience. I mentioned it to the theatre manager, who didn’t have a problem with it, but when one of the performers found out, she was very distressed by the idea of being onstage, undressing for a child. I realised then that this isn’t like an actor or a dancer on stage. These performers have different mentalities, a different purpose - they don’t undress for art, they undress because they are paid to.’
Howe adds, ‘I like Nightshade so much, the whole thing. Really, I like it more and more. The girls I perform with are incredible, and I think by watching this you get to see a little more of the life and culture of all of those girls, and that they have so much more to offer.’
Tramway, Glasgow, Thu 21-Sat 23 Jun