Bare chests, bare hearts

The conflict between Israel’s culture minister and artists using nudity in their performances has been thrown back into the spotlight.

CHOREOGRAPHERS/DANCERS Shamel Pitts and Mirelle Martins’ latest piece, ‘Black Velvet.’ (photo credit: REBECCA STELLA)
CHOREOGRAPHERS/DANCERS Shamel Pitts and Mirelle Martins’ latest piece, ‘Black Velvet.’
(photo credit: REBECCA STELLA)
Over the past week, Machol Shalem Dance House’s Jerusalem International Dance Week has received a lot of media attention, both wanted and not. The annual event, which brings dance programmers and curators from around the globe to Jerusalem for a week of local performance, has found itself at the center of an ongoing debate about nudity on stage.
Spearheaded by Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, the resistance to performances involving partial or full nudity has impacted festivals such as the Israel Festival and the Curtain Up Festival. Earlier this week, a statement was made that neither the ministry nor the Jerusalem Municipality would be subsidizing three of the 28 productions hosted by Dance Week due to nudity.
One of these performances is the duet Black Velvet: Architectures and Archetypes by Shamel Pitts and Mirelle Martins. In this work, both dancers are seen bare-chested, however it is clear that the controversy is Martins’s chest-bearing.
Pitts and Martins have recently arrived in Israel from New York City, where they live and work. They were immediately met by this controversy, which is very unique to Israel at this time. In other major cities, especially ones in which contemporary dance occupies such a large piece of the cultural pie, on-stage nudity is commonplace and almost always a non-issue. Though all content-based interventions of the ministry are illegal, the tensions surrounding the subject have placed an unwanted spotlight on such productions, singling them out for an element that is not their core.
Pitts, originally from Brooklyn, New York, spent the better part of the past decade in Tel Aviv as a pillar of Batsheva Dance Company. Many locals will recognize Pitts from a particularly exuberant advertisement for eyewear brand Carolina Lemke featuring Bar Refaeli. While in Israel, Pitts created and presented his first work, Black Box – The Little Black Book of Red. Black Velvet is his second creation.
Martins, hailing from Goiania, Brazil, recently relocated to New York City to pursue her dance career. The two met in a Gaga workshop in 2013 in which Pitts was a teacher and Martins a student. They struck up an immediate rapport and in 2016 spent two months creating Black Velvet in Sao Paolo.
In the year since premiering the work in Brazil, Pitts and Martins have presented Black Velvet at Doc 11 in Berlin and as part of the Stockholm Fringe Festival, where it picked up the prestigious Audience Choice Award. While in Israel, they will perform a one-off performance at the Inbal Theater and then move on to Jerusalem. In January 2018, they will return to perform a four-show run at New York City’s 92nd Street Y.
The duet, in Pitts’ words, “researches and shares the sensibility of ideals, models and textures as a projection of ‘self.’ The dealing within these structures of systems is to discover what is inside of us, between us and around us. To hopefully bridge the distances so that we can see and meet each other. Some systems must be broken, re-imagined, in order to reconstruct.”
Dance researcher Einav Katan- Schmid wrote of Black Velvet that it “moves in between the limits of humanity; it conveys the rigidity of cultural form and uncovered exposure of self at the same time. The dance travels among strong images and individual expressions, between formality of movements that are developed into explosions without control. The sensitivity of the dancers and their relationship are mesmerizing.”
Pitts and Martins are two of the only foreign artists to present work in Jerusalem International Dance Week, a group that includes DOT504 Company with RootLessRoot tandem Jozef Frucek and Linda Kapetanea, Lisi Estaras and Valenti Rocamora Tora.
Pitts and Martins will perform Black Velvet: Architectures and Archetypes at the Inbal Theater on Saturday, December 2 ( and at Jerusalem International Dance Week on December 3 (