How to stay distinguished when you're dancing in the nude

Performance artist La Ribot specialises in 'delicious disgust'. Don't be nervous, says Judith Palmer
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The Independent Culture

"I have always worn chairs," declares La Ribot, leaping up without warning, and seizing a fold-up chair from her kitchen. Climbing between the wooden slats, she wriggles it down over her black PVC trousers. With a provocative tilt of her hips, she begins to clatter the seat open and closed, arching backwards, and transforming her loins into the snapping jaws of a crocodile. Only on stage, of course, she'd be naked.

"I have always worn chairs," declares La Ribot, leaping up without warning, and seizing a fold-up chair from her kitchen. Climbing between the wooden slats, she wriggles it down over her black PVC trousers. With a provocative tilt of her hips, she begins to clatter the seat open and closed, arching backwards, and transforming her loins into the snapping jaws of a crocodile. Only on stage, of course, she'd be naked.

La Ribot always performs naked. It's one of her few rules. She performs solo, engaging her tall angular body with a selection of simple objects: a chair, a blue wig, a marker-pen. Each show is a collection of short vignettes, or "Distinguished Pieces", lasting between 30 seconds and seven minutes. She aims, eventually, to create 100 Distinguished Pieces. At the moment, she's done 34, roughly the same as her age. The latest batch of eight sketches receives its UK premiere at the South London Gallery next week, under the title Still Distinguished.

In one tableau, "Outsized Baggage", the Spanish redhead can be found standing patiently on one pink high-heeled mule, naked body neatly trussed up with parcel cord, an enormous airline luggage tag stuck across her chest. In another she attempts simultaneously to run, crochet and read Don Quixote.

So why the obsession with being distinguished? "Distinguished is different, distinct, also, like this..." she flicks her nose up, in mock snootiness. "That bit's a joke, a serious joke," she laughs. It is also, she reveals, a homage to Erik Satie, and a piece of his music she regularly performs to: Trois valses distinguées du précieux dégoûté. "I love that - précieux dégoûté - delicious disgust," she savours the words. "Maybe the Distinguished Pieces are like that, too."

Up until now, each piece has been for sale, to a "Distinguished Proprietor". Approach her after a show, agree a price, and you'll get your name in every programme, with nothing more material to show for it than a regular letter, telling you how your piece is going down with audiences from Lucerne to New York. Now she's angst-ridden about the concept because one of her latest pieces is a video. "Distinguished Proprietors aren't supposed to get anything tangible," she groans. "I have to stop selling while I work out a solution."

This blow to her finances has been softened by the arrival last month of £20,000 prize-money from the Spanish government's most prestigious arts award, the Premio Nacional de Danza. An ironic accolade, considering that the purist Spanish dance world had hitherto been so reluctant to accept her that, in 1997, she left her home in Madrid and resettled in London with her partner, Swiss choreographer Gilles Jobin. "London is a very good place to develop this kind of work," she considers. "It's very open. More artists here are breaking boundaries and working on things that are unclassifiable."

So is that how she's ended up in an art gallery, billed as part of the London International Mime Festival? "I feel I'm in the centre of a very slippery thing," she shrugs. "It's not at all mime what I'm doing. It could be live art, performance art, visual art, theatre. I always think I'm doing dance - if other people don't, that's OK. It could be anything, depending who's watching - but I'm almost sure it's not mime."

The first series of Distinguished Pieces was very theatrical, the second more visual. "I wanted to see the body more like a canvas - an object to stick things on," she explains. "It was a very flat thing, like a picture, that you see always from the front." This third series is more sculptural. "The space around it is very important," she says. "Out of a theatre, the relationship with the audience changes, because they're not in a fixed place, looking in a fixed direction. In the gallery they are much closer. I feel they can smell me. The work is much more in the skin - sensitive, sensorial, soft."

But even within a contemporary art gallery, when confronted by a slightly deranged nude woman wandering amongst them, won't the audience hug the walls in terror? La Ribot has considered this. "I don't want people to be nervous. I hate it when a performer touches me - it shows no respect. I will arrive, put on the videos and leave the audience alone for 12 minutes, so by the time I come back to perform the second piece, it's more their space than mine. It's everybody's space."

'Still Distinguished': South London Gallery, SE5 (020 7703 9799), Monday to 21 January

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