The dance duets that Molly Lieber and Eleanor Smith have been creating for themselves since 2006 are intensely intimate. Moving together through positions of sculptural beauty that might make you think of Rodin or Degas, the two women seem to exist in a world shrunk down to two. Without overt shows of emotion — but also not without tension — they look unusually attuned to each other yet not entirely at ease. The sense of exposure has often been heightened by complete nudity, the sense of mystery deepened by their silence.
That is, until the moment late in their 2017 piece “Basketball” when Ms. Smith, through clenched teeth, said: “My name is Eleanor. Fifteen years ago, I was raped.”
In their new work “Body Comes Apart,” there’s a lot more where that came from. The duet, making its debut at New York Live Arts this week, explodes into speech immediately. Nudity is more conspicuous than ever, with the two women stripping down to bend over and spread their legs again and again. But the talking — a mix of true stories and fiction — is even more explicit this time, more obscene and clearer about the targets of its satirical contempt: the male gaze and the objectification of women.
Another target, Ms. Lieber explained after a recent rehearsal, is “the person who shows up to a modern dance show to watch these women doing something kind of sexy.” Ms. Lieber said she wants that person to feel terrible. Ms. Smith described aspects of the work as “an indictment of the audience.”
This tone is new for the duo, yet Ms. Smith stressed that the content isn’t. “This is not our #MeToo piece,” she said. For them, their work has always been feminist, always about female interiority, always intended to heal themselves and help others who have experienced sexual trauma.
“But we’ve been so misunderstood,” Ms. Lieber said.
It’s not just a case of missed subtext, of a message not quite coming through. It’s not even only about leering male viewers. Some female critics have accused the pair of catering to the male gaze, of arranging their naked or barely clothed bodies for a voyeur’s pleasure.
“The hurdle that we’re up against as artists is bigger than we thought,” Ms. Lieber said. “I would really love it if I never had to open my mouth. Speaking is not my creative means. I’m dying to stay in the body of this dancer who cannot speak and can look powerful doing things that are ambiguous. But it isn’t enough. That’s why we’re talking.”
Ms. Smith added that at the beginning of the partnership, she was wasn’t yet prepared to tell her rape story. “Now I’m 35,” she said, “and I’ve worked through a lot of things, and I feel ready to be explicit about putting that in my work. It feels empowering.”
That beginning was 13 years ago, when the two met as dancers in someone else’s project. Both had an interest in choreography, so each made a solo for the other. Soon, they became fascinated by fully collaborative creation.
“There’s not a sense of Molly makes a section and then Eleanor makes a section,” Ms. Smith said. “We’re making everything together.”
This strict ethos of consensus extended into a joint interview with them. Each was always checking to see that everything she said accorded with the other’s point of view.
Over the years, they’ve worked on ways of representing this relationship physically, ways of supporting each other’s bodies so that neither is passive, neither dominant. By 2015, when their work “Rude World” had its premiere, they had perfected a technique for rolling together on the floor as a single organism.
But something else was happening, too. As they improvised together in the studio, the discoveries were not just physical. “Improvising with deep trust,” Ms. Smith said, “you open up freedom and space for each other, so things come up that wouldn’t normally — personal histories, including personal trauma.”
They found that their method had created a new context, one that was not hers or hers but theirs. And when their experience of trauma entered into this context, they could feel it physically and intensely but also achieve distance from it and look at it as artists together.
“You can take it and put it back together and mix it up and all of a sudden it makes sense in a new way,” Ms. Lieber said.
For a long time, the product of that mixing up was abstract. At first, the nudity was for them, they said, so that they could listen to each other with more senses, feeling the minute shifts of position and energy skin to skin. And it made all the difference in the world that they were asking this of themselves, that it wasn’t some other choreographer saying, “Now you get naked.”
They wanted the audience to be able to see those subtle shifts as well. By clothing themselves and disrobing throughout a performance, the women hoped to make their audience think about the difference. In “Body Comes Apart,” though, both the nudity and the continual putting on and taking off of clothing have grown more overtly confrontational. They do what they did before, but the context has changed.
“Now the nudity is so pronounced that you can’t not look at it,” Ms. Lieber said. “We’re addressing all the insults that are put on us. We’re asking for it.”
This is made unmistakably clear by the talking, and by the humor. “Body Comes Apart” begins with Ms. Lieber leading a mock exercise class, teaching her female students how to feel sexy, how to work out in order to look good during the sex they’ll be having later.
“We’re making fun of these ideas that are put on us, that we’re trapped inside,” Ms. Lieber said. “Did you really think that this workout class would be totally fulfilling to me because I’m a woman?” And, elsewhere in the piece: “Did you really think that this is how I felt about being raped? If we can make fun of these ideas, then we can have a little more power over them.”
The humor also emerges from the long friendship and creative partnership between the women. “Molly makes me laugh all the time,” Ms. Smith said.
“I think she’s the only person I make laugh,” Ms. Lieber countered, laughing. “Nobody thinks I’m funny, so trying to be funny in this piece is frightening.”
More frightening than performing in the nude?
“Yes,” Ms. Lieber and Ms. Smith answered, together.