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> > > Retina Dance's Spring Tour of 'Layers of Skin'
photo of a group of dancers with legs in the air

Layers of Skin performed by Retina Dance Company. Photo: Chris Nash

Retina Dance's 'Layers of Skin' examines the artistic process of 'hiding' and 'revealing' in contemporary dance. Obi Chiejina uncovers some complex ideas behind the performance, touring nationally and internationally until Autumn 2012

The French cultural theorist Paul Valery viewed the skin as a cultural symbol of the artifices hiding the essential and key components of the literary arts. "Man is only man at the surface. Remove the skin, dissect, and immediately you come to machinery." Quoted from the Journal of Investigative Dermatology

Valery compared the artistic processes of disclosing the core essence of a literary piece of work to an anatomist dissecting a cross-section of skin. The role of the writer was to act as a ‘artistic anatomist’ by extracting a verse or line from a poem, removing unwanted artifices, separating the verse/line into poetic layers and examining the tissues under the ‘microscope’ of the poet’s eye.     

The skin’s dual role as artistic barrier and inspiration provides the dramatic language to ‘Layers of Skin’ - an event performance choreographed by Filip Van Huffel and his company Retina Dance.

The event alternates between reinforcing the barrier or ‘skin’ of the audience’s expectations of contemporary dance and peeling back this artificial ‘skin’ to reveal the interconnecting ‘nervous system’ and ‘blood vessels’ binding the dancers, choreographer, music and audience members together into a provocative but intimate performance piece.    

At the beginning of the sixty-minute performance a series of technical, emotional and psychological comfort skins are removed.  Firstly the lights are switched off and the performance area is clothed in darkness.  Unable to see I can’t make sense of what looks like a clump in one corner.  The loss of sight leads to overwhelming feelings of anxiety.

Suddenly the performance area is illuminated. Anxiety is now replaced by a sense of relief as we can see. Before the eyes of the audience the clump is transformed into six individual dancers. However the sense of relief turns to discomfort as the stage lights reveals the three male dancers and three female dancers are only dressed in their underwear. Now the audience is confronted by the equally disturbing spectacle of an abundant display of skin. 

By stripping away or subverting our layers we witness the common features of human skin: the irregularities of the skin surface (dark/light), excessive skin production (the clump), movement of the three layers of the skin (three female and male dancers) and cellular breakdown/reformation.

However the relentless drive to expose the technical, emotional and psychological comfort layers occasionally results in some parts of the performance event becoming detached.  As mentioned before there is an emphasis on the visual display of human skin.  Added to which there is sweat, dilated eyes, wet hair, loud grunts, panting and the sound of bodies being dragged across the floor.

I found myself asking the following question: is this a piece of experimental art or am I watching an ‘artistic version’ of an adult pornographic film choreographed by a high profile figure and well known dance company? The artistic process of disclosure may itself be innovative but audience members are sometimes reduced to a group of voyeurs – watching, peering and listening.

Leaving aside the lapses into visual and oral titillation ‘Layers of Skin’ is a complex event production that will uncover and expose your expectations of contemporary dance. Don’t be surprised if you’re left with an itch. Just scratch and reveal the beauty of the ‘machinery.’

Layers of Skin shows on Saturday 25 February at Déda, Chapel Street, Derby in collaboration with Derbyshire Dance Artists' Network and tours until Autumn 2012

Go to for further details.