I’d wanted to see Maude Davey’s My Life in the Nude from the moment I first heard about it. I’d seen Davey perform several times before, usually as part of The Burlesque Hour, and she’d long been a favourite of mine for her charm, subversive wit, and the boldness of her acts. I was devastated when I saw that the last eight days of the season at La Mama had sold out well in advance. When a Saturday matinee was added to the show’s last weekend, I was fortunate enough to snap up a couple of the last tickets.
There was a lot of polite shuffling as the above-capacity audience struggled to sort itself out in the incredibly intimate La Mama Theatre. I ended up crammed in to a tiny, three-seat back row next to a podium. With my significant other on one side of me, and a wall on the other, I was free to experience My Life in the Nude in full. I’m used to being moved by art. I’m used to finding it thought-provoking, life-affirming, upsetting, confronting, and side-splittingly funny, but what I was not necessarily expecting was to experience all of those things in a one-woman, two act play on a rainy Saturday afternoon.
My Life in the Nude is, as it says on the tin, a retrospective of Davey’s nude and almost-nude performances, her way of saying goodbye to the unclothed stage presence she has donned since she was in her twenties. She performs several of her well-known and well loved acts, often sharing the stories behind them. The show is a disarming mix of dance, performance art, singing, monologue, and commentary on (and from) performers who have inspired her. Davey asks — and answers — questions about bodies, from her unique perspective: What do bodies mean? What does nudity mean? How does ageing change not only your body, but how your body is viewed? If your naked body is an asset, what happens when that asset’s value diminishes?
I was so captivated by the show, I did something I haven’t done since my short-lived stint as a comedy reviewer: I started taking notes, scrounging around in my handbag for my notebook, squinting to make sure that I had a page that didn’t already have writing on it (not entirely successfully), and wordlessly begging a pen from my partner when I couldn’t find mine.
All I managed to get down — all I wanted to record — were some of Davey’s pithier and more striking bon mots. It was only when I struggled to verbalise what the show had meant to me that I realised I wanted to write a response, a reflection on what I had taken away from it, the thoughts it had triggered, the response I had as a fat woman who performs in a body considered ugly and taboo by much of society.
I’ve been performing burlesque under the stage name Harlotte Brontë since May 2012 with Va Va Boombah, a troupe I co-founded. My interest in burlesque goes back well over a decade and I attempted to find my people and my opportunities long before then, but struggled to find environments where I felt that performers like me would be welcome. While I’m still a new performer in every imaginable sense of the word, it is something that I love to do, and something that I work hard at. This is, of course, an ongoing process, especially as I have no formal dance training to draw from — I’m learning everything new as an adult, and drawing heavily from my childhood and teenage years of improvised theatre and musicals. I am still learning. I will always be learning.
* * *
‘“You’re so brave!” Am I that hideous?’
Davey talks of women coming up to her and saying “you’re so brave!”, and the hidden insult behind this seeming compliment — “am I that hideous?”
I’ve been told the same thing many times over after a show. I do ask myself what I’m doing sometimes. Sometimes for good, to make sure I’m on the right track with what I want to say in a given act. Sometimes for less good, when my body fails me, or I feel bad about it, or when the barrage of “your body is not okay” messages gets just a little bit much.
What has it taken to reach the point where I, a woman whose body is a long way from what our culture considers beautiful or desirable, take my clothes off on stage in front of an audience? In the context of this culture at this time, what does my naked body mean?
This nudity, my nudity, is not brave. If anything, it is selfish. I am not demanding that you should want to fuck me; I am insisting you acknowledge that I exist. I am insisting that I deserve the attention of a room full of people for the time I am on stage.
I am not interested in burlesque where all that happens is that an attractive person takes their clothes off in a pleasing way. I want wit and brains and blood and guts (not literally, although that can be good too). A story about a person deemed acceptably attractive performing a narrative of culturally acceptable sexualized femininity is not a story I find compelling. It’s not a story I wish to tell, and — to an extent — it’s not a story I am able to tell. At the same time, I understand that it’s a story that is compelling for both storyteller and audience, because beauty, particularly culturally approved beauty, is a heady and desirable fantastical thing that so many of us believe we lack in adequate portions.
I am a long way from being where I’d like to be with my own performance practice. I am not a dancer, a fact that I am painfully conscious of every time I climb onto stage. The way I move is a legacy of thirty years of being told: You are too tall. You take up too much space. Your footfalls are too loud and carry too much of a reminder of the bulk of your form. You are not elegant. You are not feminine. You are too much, too much, too much.
When I dance, my whole body is a raised middle finger, aimed at the stories I have been told about it my entire life.
But I perform this way to communicate. Because burlesque is the best way I have found to tell the stories I have wanted to use my body to tell, to communicate ideas to other people like me, who are not used to seeing facsimiles of themselves presented as powerful, sexual, playful, worthy of regard and without shame.
I am yet to do a performance where I end up completely naked, although it’s on the list. The flipside of the bravery comment is the complaint that I am too covered up. This comment almost always comes from someone who is not themselves in a position to understand the psychic nakedness I am already displaying. There is nowhere to hide your imperfect body when you are near-naked and on stage. This fact holds the terrifying freedom of being flung from a cage to see if you have the ability to fly.
‘Burlesque is an assertion: I am beautiful. I am worthy of your regard.’
In My Life in the Nude, Davey tells a story about teaching burlesque to a class of disabled women. She realised that her own lack of patience and interest in the kind of ‘classic’ burlesque where performers look beautiful and peel off beautiful costumes was considerably at odds with some of the women she was teaching, for whom burlesque offered a rare opportunity to feel beautiful.
At this point, Davey performs to Christina Aguilera’s‘Beautiful’, stripping out of a gorilla costume decorated with nipple tassels. It’s an oddly touching routine, and perfectly placed within the body of the show.
Fat people negotiate a space where we are constantly bounced between visible and invisible. Our bodies are camouflaged or revealed by context. On reality television shows dedicated to the eradication of bodies like ours, we are horribly visible, a technicolour nightmare of blubber. Blubbering.
Living our lives, taking up public space, we are rendered visible or invisible depending on who is doing the looking, the loud mocking, and who is doing the looking away, panicked by the very fact of our existence.
In the realm of sex and desire we are again dependent on the looker: Object of disgust? Object of fetish? Our sexual desire is folly. We should just be grateful if anyone even wants to have a go.
Of course, this is bullshit. But the strength it takes to not apologise for existing, to firmly assert your own subjectivity, is phenomenal. When you are used to being talked about as though you are a problem to be solved, when your body type is regarded as an epidemic, when looking like you is the motivational nightmare of many people around you, asserting your agency is a supremely fierce act.
‘If your naked body is an asset, what happens when that asset’s value diminishes?’
When we talk about our bodies as being assets, to whom are they assets? For what purposes? Which people and purposes are the ones that matter?
I don’t know about what will happen when the value of my body as an asset diminishes. Fat bodies are frequently already thought of a having diminished value; as fat people, we are encouraged to redeem ourselves and increase our value through dieting, which is a display mostly of a desire to be seen as good, to atone for the unacceptability of how we look. I have not afforded thought to what will happen when my body’s asset value diminishes, because I have still been learning to think of my body as an asset, rather than a liability, rather than something people will love me in spite of.
Of course, there are many ways in which my body is an asset: I am able-bodied, and mostly healthy. I am young. Although my body is fatter than the current cultural ideal, I have large breasts and hips and thighs and a comparatively smaller waist.
All of these things will one day change.
* * *
As the rest of the audience filed out of the tiny theatre, I slumped in my seat, a gasping, tear-sodden mess, emotionally deva
stated yet completely elated. I don’t tend to cry during live performance, or movies — not that
I feel there is any shame in doing so, it’s just not usually one of my tells. I was not alone in my tears, however — a quartet of middle-aged women sitting in front of me had echoed my own gasps and sobs throughout the show, and had walked out holding each other, awkwardly navigating the seating. In a part of the show where Davey got audience members to read out letters from some of her contemporaries sharing their own thoughts about bodies and nakedness, the man who read Jason Sweeney’s letter visibly tried to hold in tears, and was unable to do so by the end of the page. Even as I write this, I find myself tearing up — weeks after seeing the show, and after plenty of reflection and rambling recommendations to friends who weren’t there (and an excitable Facebook-based fangirling session with a friend who was).
And while I know it’s a goodbye, I really hope she returns for another season, so I can go again, several more times, and drag along pretty much everyone I know, poking people irritatingly in the thigh to emphasise, This. This. This.
Thank you, Maude Davey. How lucky we are to have someone like you working in Australia.
Maude Davey is performing selected acts from My Life in the Nude at Hares and Hyenas Rent Part on Friday 30th August 2013. Details here.