The Naughty Nineties: The Triumph of the American Libido
by David Friend
The summer of 1998, Philip Roth began his novel The Human Stain, “was the summer when a president’s penis was on everyone’s mind”; 1998 was also the year when Pfizer signed up Bob Dole, who had run for president against Bill Clinton two years earlier, to promote its new drug, Viagra. The barriers to talking explicitly and publicly about sex had been falling for several years. In the early 1990s, the rap group 2 Live Crew had been acquitted of obscenity charges for performing their album As Nasty as They Wanna Be. The Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati and its director won a similar victory when they were tried for exhibiting photographs from Robert Mapplethorpe’s X Portfolio. By 1999, over two thirds of evening TV shows contained sexual content, an increase of 12 percent over the previous year. If sex had a defining feature in the 1990s, it was ubiquity.
Edward Watson’s performance as Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis shows how thin the line between the beautiful and the grotesque can be in ballet. Watson, a principal dancer with the Royal Ballet, has danced the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, Rudolf in Mayerling and next year will dance Romeo in MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet. In this adaptation of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis by Arthur Pita, Watson evokes the nightmarish experience Kafka describes—of a man who wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into a giant insect—through the vocabulary of ballet. Here you can see his leg turned out at the hip and his foot arched. But what he is doing with his toes makes the whole posture hideous. They wriggle like a millipede’s legs, as though beyond his control, and Watson looks at them in horror.