I am standing in the back of a partition rope, awaiting the theatre to open. An excited hum rises off the crowd, jostling whilst the stewards throw open the doors. As a theatre critic, I have stood in infinite queues. I should not feel the fear that I do, but there is one important difference right here: target audience individuals are sporting nothing extra than tub gowns and turn-flops.
And then they’re not even wearing those. All clothes are discarded as they race to claim a seat at the tiered timber benches inside the auditorium and lay down towels to mark their spot. In a depend on minutes, there is a neatly organized room of virtually two hundred naked human beings sitting in a heated amphitheater, expecting the show to begin. I am as disrobed as the relaxation of them.
This is not a tense dream. It is august in movement: a theatrical experience inside a massive sauna where gymnasium-match performers throw important oils directly to a relevant range and wave towels in choreographed methods. They integrate this ritual with a 15-minute drama concerning dress changes, music, and movement. The target audience zips out among acts to dunk themselves in cold water before running again in for the following show.
It is the very last day of the week-lengthy world aufguss championships at Thermen Berendonck, a lovely sauna complex in Wijchen, close to Nijmegen, wherein almost 100 contenders and eleven European international locations compete for medals. Surveying the room, I see buddies chatting, couples clasping hands—some banter and clap. No one avoids eye contact or stares at their toes. This will be any lively theatre crowd, had been it now not for the nudity.
Numerous languages are being spoken. Many are carrying woolen hats, which I am later advised to serve to maintain body temperature leveled. The hats appearance comical inside the sea of bare flesh; however, I am too dry-mouthed to snigger. Two guys in Viking caps make an area for me on the crowded lower benches. I get away into a sweat the minute I am squeezed in between them, no longer best because it’s so cushy. Still, additionally, the heating is cranked up to eighty-five tiers, and the stewards are approximate to seal the doorways.
The acts range from diversifying The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Life of Pi to authentic scripts that consist of Danish manufacturing about polluting the oceans and a show approximately the suffragette Emily Davison, whose protest on the Derby in 1913 brought about her death.
The auditorium is a cutting-edge, tile-paneled sauna with surround sound and a large display as a backdrop. The acts are heavy on showmanship and special effects, including smoke and floor lighting fixtures, and the actors speak English. The first few acts appear to be channeling Las Vegas pizzazz crossed with Eurovision track contest camp, but slowly I positioned my cynicism aside.
Britain isn’t always a competing u. S. Right here. While aufguss may inspire snickering amongst some buttoned-up Brits, it’s miles part of a booming European industry that intersects well-being with the humanities. According to Martijn Vanhoorelbeke, a juror at the aufguss and 3-instances former Belgian champion, the advantages include not just the detoxifying consequences of a sauna however emotional catharsis, too. He regards it as a “general enjoy” of the senses: “Aufguss does what different forms of theatre cannot do with the smells [of the oils], the sounds and attractions, the sensation of the heat in addition to the emotional drama of the story and the impact of all of those matters combined.”
We are more susceptible whilst we’re more exposed, he adds, and so the revel in no longer bring out physical pollutants but “emotions rise, too.”
He might be right. I am immediately drawn into an edition of Billy Elliot. It uses Ondrej Sochurek, a dancer and circus performer from the Czech Republic who begins with an excessive-octane habitual to Duran Duran’s Wild Boys in an imaginary boxing ring before switching to Swan Lake his towels change into beating swan’s wings. Astonishingly, it really works, and in the end, it is not just Sochurek’s rosemary and bergamot infusions that are misting up my eyes. I am now not the most effective one moved: he gets a status ovation, a formidable pass from a completely bare audience.
He is followed via Poland’s Marcin Ciesielski, whose upbeat display, The Shoemaker, combines comic skits with faucet dance and ballroom. By way of Italy’s Charoulla Demetriou and Salvadori Morgana, Suffragettes is darkish but exhilarating, with its rousing message of gender equality and stark image of Davison’s death projected directly to the screen.
The nudity takes on a distinct dimension inside the context of this drama. There isn’t any trace of guffawing—the suspension of disbelief adjustments the tone of the room. Michael Niedermaier, an Italian champion who is a sauna grasp at Preidlhof Spa Hotel in South Tirol, thinks that aufguss heightens feelings and could help people conquer embarrassment around nudity. Sabrina Telfer, additionally at Preidlhof, concurs: “If people are added slowly and efficiently to the experience, the shyness may be overcome.”
Vanhoorelbeke has currently been supporting Britons do just that by strolling aufguss schooling sessions in Brighton, which may not right away dismantle entrenched views around nudity, but might also chip away on the English reserve. I had feared that the sight of such nudity en masse could conjure scenes paying homage to Carry On comedy in my mind. How wrong I had been, and what giddy liberation I felt as I floated off for my bloodless shower.