The last bastion of personal freedom is the body.“I believe that little by little, worldwide, we are losing the space of freedom,” says Belgian choreographer Thierry Smits. “The tendency in the world is right-wing, neo-liberal, and people are more controlled. We have less liberty even if we think we have more. The last territory where we can be ourselves and where we can have full freedom is our bodies. I believe that is the statement of nudity on stage today.”Smits is one of Europe’s most forward-thinking artists. For the entirety of his long career, he has pushed the envelope, bringing together political statement with masterful movement. This month, he will bring his troupe Compagnie Thor as part of the Suzanne Dellal Center’s Tel Aviv Dance Festival with Anima Ardens. The title of the piece is Latin for “burning souls.”“It is really a reference to the fact that we are going on a search for something that is not necessarily visible but is there. We are burning souls on stage,” explains Smits.The 11 burning souls on stage are all male. And, for most of the work, they are completely nude.To date, Anima Ardens has been received very warmly, with little tension or stress surrounding the nude element.“There isn’t any buzz about it because we are very used to nudity on stage in Europe. I was quite happy when I saw that the Ministry of Culture chose to punish the Israel Festival because of its nude performances. It made me happy that it’s so controversial. In my eyes, it’s a huge regression. Nudity on stage is not new. Already in the 1960s and ‘70s people at Woodstock were dancing nude. It’s not new, but I think it’s gaining a kind of new political statement again to do things nude,” he observes. “I made the choice of nudity because I didn’t want to work with costumes. I thought they would add a story that I didn’t want to tell. The main thing I wanted to show is a bunch of men who are gathering together to try to get involved in a trance. I didn’t think of anything other than that. They are not only nude but are of different colors of skin, which is very important. I wanted to put on stage a collective that could represent humanity on stage. Voila! It’s a community, our community, the community of manhood...,” he explains.When he began the process, Smits was uncertain whether to work with men or women; however, he knew that the cast could not be mixed gender.“What I wanted to work on was new rituals or revisiting old rituals and the state of procession. When we started to work, my assistant and I, we searched for anthropological material about ritualistic behavior and saw that all the secret societies are either all male or all female. I thought it would be nice to do the piece with a male cast. But I think it could have been a totally female cast as well,” he says.The process, from the beginning, was deeply enjoyable for Smits and his cast. Forming a community on stage meant becoming a community in real life.“We had an incredible experience of sharing backgrounds and sympathy with each other,” he says.From an artistic perspective, Smits struggled to keep things as pure as possible.“I knew I wanted to make something that was pure. I wanted to present these bodies as they are. That said, there is an undercurrent of imperfection because the body is never perfect,” he points out.As part of the research for Anima Ardens, Smits and his cast explored various types of trances from around the world. “We see trance-like states all over – in Africa, in southern Italy with the tarantella. People who are in a trance are very close to psychosis. In fact, the difference between someone in a trance and someone with a mental illness is the [former’s] ability to leave the psychotic state,” Smits explains.It all comes together for Smits in a moment in the third and final section of the piece. After nearly an hour of moving and sweating, the dancers face off with the audience in a stomping, bowing movement.“It’s a very small moment, but to me it’s the strongest moment of the entire piece,” says the choreographer.Thierry Smits will present ‘Anima Ardens’ on October 13 to 19 at the Suzanne Dellal Center in Tel Aviv. For more information, visit www.suzannedellal.org.il.