Temporary Title: French dancer Xavier Le Roy’s naked ambition – The Australian

November 12, 2015

By Simone Fox Koob


It sounds like a recurring nightmare: performing in front of a large crowd, an artist finds themselves stripped bare, completely naked, and alone on stage. French choreographer and dancer Xavier Le Roy isn’t fazed.

“I never think, ‘Oh my god I have to get nude’,” he says. “It has a purpose. It’s necessary.”

While the 52-year-old former molecular biologist may be nonchalant about nudity in his work, he understands it inevitably attracts an assortment of reactions from audiences. Indeed, gauging the reaction of his spectators is the rationale behind the open rehearsals under way in Sydney for his latest movement project — how the public respond will shape the final work, called Temporary Title.

With 12 nude performers moving in strange and often inhuman patterns around a warehouse space at Carriageworks, the reaction is sure to be mixed. But, as Le Roy says, that’s the point of the exercise.

“All my works deal with the relationship to the public as being part of the work. Not that I want to control it, more in the sense that when you do a live performance, what the public (does) affects what you do, and the opposite,” he says. “The idea of the public rehearsal is to say yes, the public is part of the work. We should work on this relationship in order to actually make the work.”

To illustrate the idea, he lifts his arm in front of him, dangling it awkwardly as he stares straight ahead. He’s waiting for a reaction, and gets one.

“Exactly,” he says. “You have a little smile.”

The unorthodox choreographer has returned to Australia after a brief visit in 2013, where he worked with arts philanthropist John Kaldor on the performance art exhibition 13 Rooms. Kaldor invited him back this year, commissioning Temporary Title, a collaborative work that Le Roy is developing with Hong Kong-based choreographer Scarlet Yu.

It will be a “landscape of actions” in which Le Roy gives the 12 performers loose instructions to move through different positions, morphing into shapes that resemble animals or objects. They will perform with no sets, no props, no music — and no clothes.

He says he had not expected Australia to be so sensitive about nudity. “I notice that here (the nudity) is a big issue, it seems. It has been a big issue in Japan, and I just performed in Beirut, where you’re not supposed to be naked but you find some way. And in Singapore, where there is clearly a censorship. But here there is not really a censorship and there is a lot of concern about if children see it, if this, if that. I’m quite surprised actually. It’s very weird because it looks like a very open-minded country.”

Le Roy has been travelling worldwide performing his work for almost two decades. In 1998 he created one his most famous ­pieces, Self Unfinished (which he will perform in short seasons in Sydney and Melbourne), which continues to be requested by some of the world’s biggest arts institutions. In it, he moves mechanically through a series of stiff positions, producing robotic sound effects, before pulling a long, black slip over his head and moving along a wall on his hands. In 2011, The New York Times described the performance as “a quiet, focused portrait in motion”, in which “this tall, skinny choreographer resembled an overgrown, serious boy, intent on turning himself into a robot”. Gradually he removes all his clothes.

“It sometimes brings a lot of laughter and sometimes a lot of silence. My intention is not one or the other. I think the piece invites for silence, but the laughter is very welcome. Especially because they have a function of relaxing. Being in the silence produces a sort of tension, concentration. One needs to breathe in a way.”

Le Roy’s brand of what he describes as experimental choreography — “if one needs to name a kind of art” — continues to be in demand, a career trajectory, he admits, that was a significant leap from the laboratories of France. He holds a doctorate in molecular and cellular biology from the University of Montpellier where he studied for a decade before transferring into choreography in 1991. While he tries to avoid “referring to it consciously” in his work, the years of studying science left their mark. “It’s like if you have a relationship with someone for 10 years. Even if it stops, somehow it operates.”

He describes the career change as “one of the best decisions” he has made, but one that wasn’t without upheaval. “It produced a lot of emotional and social and economic and political transformation in myself, for sure. It’s not easy because it is this big change according to the norm of the society. So I am not outside of it, I am affected.”

In the early 2000s, he began to create dance and movement works designed to be experienced in an exhibition space, and has been credited, along with others such as British-German artist Tino Sehgal, as one of the first artists to bring dance and movement into the museums and galleries. He has since created site-specific work for the Tate Modern in London, the Fundacio Antoni Tapies in Barcelona, Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul. His show Retrospective, a reimagining of his past works that blended his own stories with those of his performers, was first presented in Barcelona in 2012 and has since has been seen in seven cities including Berlin, Singapore, Rio de Janeiro and New York.

Other recurring projects include a study of musicianship in Rite of Spring, where he mimes the movements and gestures of a conductor; and Product of Circumstances, a semibiographical work, combining a traditional lecture format, complete with overhead projections and a lectern, interspersed with abstract movement pieces that illustrated sections of his story.

After 20 years in the field, Le Roy says he will perform the works as long as there is demand for them. “I think that’s luck: to be able to live through this work and make this work literally live. They are alive and they have a life.”

Xavier Le Roy performs Self Unfinished on November 17, 18 and 19 at Carriageworks in Sydney, and on December 4 and 5 at Dancehouse in Melbourne.Temporary Title premieres in Sydney on November 20, 21 and 22. Le Roy will give free public talks at the MPavilion in Melbourne on November 28, December 5 and 12.