Talking about nudity, says performer Hannah Tasker-Poland, is like opening a can of worms. The creative force behind the show The Most Naked, which is running as part of next week’s Auckland Live Cabaret Season, talks to Emma Clifton about the power and artistry of the naked body.
If you were lucky enough to be a teenager in the 1990s, you might remember the seminal single Control by Janet Jackson, which opens up with this iconic line: “This is a story about control. My control.”
It’s a line that goes round and round in my head while talking to Hannah Tasker-Poland, the choreographer, star, and creator of the performance The Most Naked, which is part of Auckland’s upcoming Cabaret season. “It’s too many hats for one person, I need some other people to wear those hats for me, but it’s what happens in New Zealand a lot,” she says, of her multiple roles, joking that the hard balance leads to about three or four existential crises along the way. A week out from opening night, Hannah says she and the show’s composer, Lucien Johnson, are still working out the kinks of the show and that pun is very much intended, because the Cabaret season is a whole different level compared to a normal stage performance.
When Hannah was approached by Auckland Live to create something for the festival, she knew she had an open book to work with, due to the innate nature of the festival. “It lends itself a bit more towards the ‘burlesque-y, festishy’ erotic performance art,” she says. “I like to treat those terms as if they have quotation marks,” she laughs. “I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of the feminine form, of eroticism and sensuality and sexuality and how we might subvert them, how we might question the gaze that is on the body or the performer.”
While the burlesque side of things has only ever been a small part of Hannah’s work in dance and theatre, nudity has long been a part of Hannah’s repertoire, so she decided to have some fun with that when it comes to naming her show. “Because I end up naked in everything I do, there’s this kind of running joke that I was ‘the most naked’ performer. Whether it’s theatre, or dance, or film, or a shoot, I would always end up naked. Or,” she laughs, ”someone is like ‘Oh, we need a naked demon for this film, we should call Hannah.’ I wanted to play on the idea of ‘what is the most naked’, how we think about the body, this obsession we all have with seeing skin or covering skin, on the censorship of the femme body.”
Hannah grew up in what she calls a “body positive” household, where what bodies do and what bodies look like was treated in a very normalised, healthy way. But she says a changing point came when she was 15 and was body painted for the first time. “Being full body painted for over eight hours, becoming this incredibly intricate and beautiful walking sculpture… I just went ‘my body is a work of art.’” Apart from a G-string and nipple covers, she spent the night walking around “for all intents and purposes, completely naked, around hundreds of people and it was so powerful.” She’s never forgotten looking at her own body through that gaze and the realisation that the body is both a practical creation and also “a vessel to so many things.”
She’s also never forgotten the sense of power that came with that experience and it’s informed her work ever since. “It’s very important for me in this work that in the moments where I’m presenting ideas of eroticism or sexuality, there’s a sense of autonomy and agency in that. That when I decide to be erotic or sexual, I’m saying, ‘Yes, I give permission to be viewed in this way.’”
The Most Naked is sexy and funny and surreal, she says, but it also goes to some dark places. Hannah says when she first started researching her show, she discovered something that became an informing piece of the show. “At the same time the female breast began being censored in art, women were starting to be persecuted for being witches and burnt at the stake. It makes sense that these things were happening at the same time – the demonisation of women and the demonisation of the female form.”
She points out all the lush, voluptuous statues and paintings of the naked female form that were in fashion for so centuries, and then how quickly female nudity switched from something to worship to something to fear. There’s a part of her that enjoys leaning into that darkness, she says. “The essence of a lot of the stuff that I make is about that demonisation of the female form and then my decision to say ‘okay, if this body – or the femme body – if this is something to be feared, if this is the Scarlet Woman, the Witch, the Monster… then fine. I’ll become it, right in front of your eyes.'”
It’s might seem like an odd question to pose but with so many people working from home over the past year, there has been a distinct lack of boundaries between home and work. When your body is your work – and, more importantly, your naked body is your work, how does she keep her Performance Hannah and Home Hannah separate?
She thinks for a while about her answer. “Everything I share is always very carefully considered, it’s always 100% my decision, so that fact that I’m in total control of what I show means that my body is always just my body,” she says. “I don’t think I have a ‘Performance Body’, I just think that sometimes I let people see my body. There’s not another Hannah, I just sometimes let people see this piece of art.”