The stage in this case is a run of monumental stone steps and columns. The performance starts with a lone model, smiling, arms parted, nude except for a pair of high heels which seem to lift her in relief from her surroundings, making her presence there even more striking and singular. To the strains of 'Caro Nome', this charming figure is joined by 35 other models, some clothed, some nude.
Arranged singly and in pairs across the steps in a rich visual tapestry, these figures hint at hidden emotions and obscure dramas in their faces. You have the sense that, like a collector assembling a cabinet of beautiful trinkets, Sarah Small has hand-picked every model, delighting in the contrasts of skin-colour and muscle tone. The music switches to a Bulgarian folk quartet, sung by the Black Sea Hotel, and eerily the models add their half-heard murmurs to the melody.
Unexpectedly, the artist herself goes light-footedly up the steps, as though to assure herself of her models' submission to her artistic purpose. She begins to conduct them like a living orchestra, drawing intense lashings from the beautiful African American woman wrapped around one of the columns. There's something very touching in the connection these 36 strangers have with this slight young woman; it's as if they have been enchanted by a benevolent witch.
The piece climaxes in a performance of an aria by French operatic composer Jules Massenet. This is opera as you won't have seen it before. Singing a capella as the other models slowly drift away out of sight, mezzo-soprano Abigail Wright is naked in every meaning of the word, and all the more profoundly moving for it. Watching a nude body generating such glorious sounds gives you a new respect for the sheer physicality of singing, the way the diaphragm tightens as it brings each new phrase into the world.
The wonderful Ms Wright has also written an excellent, candid blog on the experience of performing in this piece. I would recommend it not only to those curious to learn more about that individual performance but also to anyone with an interest in the spiritual properties of nudity.
If reading that blog and watching the video inspires you to take part in one of Sarah Small's future ventures, then why not go to her website and fill in an application form? Click the appropriate button to indicate that you are willing to pose nude, submit a suitable full-body photo – and press the send button before you have a chance to change your mind. If Ms Wright's experience is anything to go by, you won't regret it.
A word on the poses:
Sarah Small has a gift for taking her models to the edge of an inner precipice and then a finger's breadth beyond. For the models her immaculately beautiful poses offer hidden challenges, both psychological and physical. Abigail Wright is positioned frontally to the audience, with her hands behind her head, a posture which denies her any possibility of self-protection while also being strenuous to maintain. Displayed against a chunky pillar in this way, Ms Wright's full figure recalls a slave girl in some Orientalist painting of the Ingres school, except that hers are the manacles of art.
The slender nude whose solo presence begins the show is also thoroughly challenged by the artist. That there is little or no modesty in her pose is guaranteed by placing her – uniquely among the unclothed models - in high heels. At the same time she is asked to show an almost superhuman control by maintaining a broad smile for almost twenty minutes. Described clinically like this, Ms Small's art may sound like a form of mild sadism. But I would suggest that models are drawn so strongly towards Ms Small just because of such uncompromising demands and the paradoxical freedom from inhibition they provide.