Sex is up front and in your face in Danish choreographer Mette Ingvartsen’s orgiastic experimental dance performance 7 Pleasures at NYU Skirball. More of an experience than a passive performance, 7 Pleasures creates a visceral momentum that involves the audience in what transpires on stage. It starts as the dancers (12 of the most physically committed performers I’ve ever seen), scattered throughout the audience, dispassionately undress. As they assemble, their naked bodies form a pile and creep slowly and amoeba-like across the stage. Moving as one organism, this process takes about 20 minutes in near silence with full house lights on. The effect is a richly complex treatment of the human body and sexuality.
What Ingvartsen does with bodies and the performers who so bravely and literally expose their flesh is fascinating. She recreates a 90-minute orgy with a dozen bodies that simulate various acts of sex, giving every impression of these sex acts, but without anybody touching in a way that could ever be misconstrued as sex. Not one genital is touched, neither by one performer to another nor the performer herself. The body instead becomes a vessel for individual sexual expression, with each dancer performing the sexual activity in a purely metaphorical way.
The level of physicality involved in 7 Pleasures is astounding. Most of the choreography is either slow-as-molasses writhing and rolling on top of each other, or quick bursts of repetitive air sex. At times, this can even look like the dancers are head banging at a rock concert. As soon as you feel like the movements cannot possibly be sustained for much longer, it changes to a different rhythm that is even more intense. Frenetic energy, almost violent, turns to the slow and sensual, then back to chaos. Music such as tribal drumming (Peter Lenaerts and Will Guthrie) and lighting design (Minna Tiikkainen) add to the overall effect of each scene, which varies from a living room orgy to multiple BDSM scenes involving rope play and spanking. Every once in a while, the performers make orgasmic moaning sounds, which is in stark contrast to the quiet intensity of most scenes.
The body is simultaneously separate from and connected to the sexual act in 7 Pleasures. Sometimes the bodies seem to move by rote, repetitively, to a rhythm that is constant and that everyone else is moving to. Perhaps if this were actual sex, it would be pornographic, too choreographed and perfect. The bodies would seem disconnected from the sexual act. But sex is messy, imperfect and wholly of the body. Fittingly, there are no costumes in 7 Pleasures so there is no escaping the body. Every ripple of muscle, every breast bouncing against a torso, every penis slapping against a thigh, all is laid bare. It casts its performers into as deep a vulnerable state as possible, an apt metaphor for the vulnerability sex can engender.