As the lights flickered on at the LA Dance Project studio in Downtown Los Angeles, two bodies lay sprawled on the floor and voice echoed overhead, remarking on the holiness of body parts and mundane objects. It wasn't long before the bodies began to move, turning, separating, and intertwining—their bare nakedness exposed. For choreographer Mike Tyus and his co-choreographer and co-creator, Luca Renzi, the Oct. 12 performance, titled Holy, felt like a creative breakthrough. It was the first presentation the pair had ever done fully nude.
Multidisciplinary artist Charlie Ann Max has her own relationship with nudity. During the pandemic, she carved out a unique niche in the Los Angeles food scene with her perpetually sold-out, bond-building dinner parties, at which guests were asked to leave their clothes at the door. The concept behind the events developed while Max was in college, experimenting with letting loose in the nude. Raised as a dancer, she was accustomed to scrutinizing her body—being naked felt liberating.
Several years later, she founded Füde—pronounced “food”—with the intention of encouraging individuals to return to their purest, most human selves through plant-based cuisine, nudity, and self-love. Max first crossed paths with Tyus when she invited the choreographer and his creative partner to one of the gatherings. “I haven't stopped talking about it,” Tyus says. “It gave us a [place] to come back to ourselves and to other people in a way that you absolutely need these days.”
In April, Max saw Tyus and Renzi perform their latest work, My Body is an Instrument, in which they, along with several other dancers, wore sensors to trigger a soundscape with their movements, transforming their bodies into instruments. Tyus will present a longer version of their work on Nov. 8 at National Sawdust for Media Art Xploration’s Live Arts Festival.
CULTURED brought the two artists together to talk nudity, cultivating holiness in art, and the perpetual battle against Instagram censorship.
Mike Tyus: I've been exploring this idea of objectifying the human body. Objectification has this negative connotation but what I do as a choreographer is stare at the body all the time. I’m looking at the lines and the shapes and the circles and the swivels. It becomes my instrument. And in [Füde], you strip the clothes off, and we get to experience purely as our bodies.
Charlie Ann Max: I start every experience with movement. It’s so important because we aren't so conscious of how we maneuver with our bodies in the world.
Tyus: When did the idea come to you and why nudity?
Max: Growing up in dance—and being a woman in dance—I had always struggled with my body image. It created a disconnect between me and myself, and I wasn't very kind. I stopped dancing when I fractured my spine. I was like, Who am I without dance? That led to a very explorative phase for me, and through that I found nudity. That was an extremely liberating and freeing experience that ultimately helped me develop a more kind, positive connection to myself. I just started spending a lot of time naked.
I had been cooking my whole life and then I started Füde through the pandemic. It was originally an online platform. I was photographing myself with [plant-based] recipes that I was creating, so it was natural and you feel this as you're doing it. It represents so much more than being naked. It's really about having strength in vulnerability and nourishing yourself.
Tyus: My first dive into nudity was working with this modern dance company named Pilobolus Dance Theater in Connecticut. We wore these dance thongs, basically—they just make you look naked. It was my first experience in a modern dance company and they're throwing me up on stage doing these really strange, abstract, beautiful works of art in the nude and it was liberating. At first, it was easy to be scared and so you put on a front of intense pride. But it melted away after a while. I realized how just perfectly myself I could be.
Max: You use skin-tone pieces in a lot of the work you create now. But you just performed a work a few weeks ago, and I think it was fully nude?
Tyus: It was my first fully nude experience on stage. My partner Luca and I created a duet that actually spanned the course of our relationship. When we first met, we'd make these small dance pieces at the park and in dance studios. So we put all of these pieces together. Luca is like an architect when it comes to how things are placed on stage, how they move, and how they relate to each other.
And I love creating a partner movement. That is my thing. Two bodies are like a cog in a wheel. How can they relate to each other? How does one move the other? So we got these sexy costumes because we wanted to do something that was sexual. And we tried them on and we were like, “This is so cheesy.” It was the night before. And then, I don't know who said it, but we were like, “Maybe we just try it. Let's try it nude.”
Instead of it being this kind of sexual piece, it became this timeless piece, something that reminds us of ancient Greek statues, touching on the beauty and the poetry of the human form of the action. Sometimes it was about relationships and violence and power and love and desire, and sometimes it was truly just about the architecture of the human form in space. Purely that. The piece is called Holy, and I think it's one of my favorite things I've ever made with Luca.
Max: It was beautiful to see through social media, and I'm so sad that I wasn't able to attend myself. Will you be performing it again?
Tyus: We hope. We want this piece to last forever. It's kind of our baby. We expanded it to a 10-minute piece and we added live strings in the last five minutes. It really amplifies this timeless essence. It couldn't be any electronic thing. It had to be wood and strings.
Max: Gorgeous. This is my selfish input, but maybe everyone who attends is watching the performance naked as you're performing naked?
Tyus: Wow. That just gave me chills. We need to create an experience.
Max: When you were posting the work, did you face any censorship issues? Were things getting deleted?
Tyus: The photographers and videographers who worked on the project used shutter speed to kind of blur these images. One of them actually took a video, sketched over 2,000 frames, and put them together in this drawn-out cartoon animated version of a part of the piece. All these things I was getting to share were also people's artistic expression of how they viewed the work in a way that could be digested for the whole public.
So gratefully, nothing was taken down. And I don't think I'd ever share anything purely nude online for this work because just like anything that you would put on stage, there’s something sacred about it. And there is something sacred about the human body. Spaces need to be created where you do feel that sacred honor. And I think there are places where you shouldn't reveal your beauty and there are places where it can be shared.
Max: That's an interesting perspective. When I started Füde, it was predominantly an online space because it was during the pandemic. And so everything that I would share would get deleted. And here I am. My personal account, @charlieannmax, is permanently deleted. And I'm like—
Max: As much as I love all the press, it's exposed me to people who really have an issue with the work that I'm creating, and so I'm constantly getting deleted and reported, regardless of whether there's nudity or not. My old Füde account had a huge following. I did this project where for each recipe [of mine that a follower] completed and shared, I would donate to No Kid Hungry, even if they weren't practicing the nudity aspect. And it made people more open to it. And so, I'm forming these beautiful relationships online.
That pushed me into [thinking], What's a more conscious and more intentional way I can create a safe space? So Füde wouldn't be what it is today had I not been getting deleted so much. I started a new account, and it’s up and running. But it's also another beautiful opportunity. Maybe it is an in-person-only kind of experience, a sacred experience, and maybe people don't always get to have access to that all the time.
Tyus: My relationship with Instagram has changed. I am so much more interested in these live experiences that we're able to have. I was at a friend's house the other day, and I don't think I go over to people's houses enough because I'm stuck in a studio. But we’re having dinner and for some reason it's special and I'm not sure when it stopped being special, and I'm not sure when it started being special again. I think it comes in waves.