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Exposing the Human Form

Nina Rietsch, left, and Farah Bivens, among the volunteers for the Pageant of the Masters who carry on its tradition of presenting the human form in its most elemental state. Photo by Ted Reckas.

Posing stark naked for 120 long seconds in front of thousands of strangers can be a tribulation. Since 1936, when Margo Goddard posed as the sculpture “Salome,” the exposed human form has been an integral part of re-creating the great works of art that appear in the Pageant of the Masters, which opens its 78th season in Laguna Beach this week.

The Pageant is comprised of numerous tableaux re-creations of sculptures, paintings, and jewelry with live models that stand perfectly still. Cathe Mennan most famously set the bar for a model’s stoicism and endurance in the summer of 1969. She was posing as the white earthenware sculpture of Galatea by Etienne Falconet when, as a testament to how truly statuesque she was, an errant pigeon attempted to land on her shoulder. It lost its footing due to the slippery makeup that encased her bare body, and slid its way down her chest to her thigh. Scratched and bleeding, Mennan stayed heroically still.

The contentiousness of nudity emerged over a decade earlier when a photo of the Pageant’s 1954 re-creation of the Venus de Milo was featured on the cover of a California visitors’ tourist guide. According to reports from Pan American Airlines, a representative condemned the photo as “lewd and lascivious” and demanded that copies of the tourist guide not be handed out to passengers on Pan Am flights. This of course only fanned the flames of publicity.

Today, models line up to get every inch of their body measured while casting director Nancy Shirkani and assistant casting director Charli Andreasen decide which model best fits the vision of the artist. “We get so many people,” remarked Andreasen regarding the three-day selection process of two volunteer casts – a total of 212 models from the 1,200 that audition beginning in January.  Those cast for nude roles are not identified by Pageant officials out of respect for their privacy. But some chose to describe their experience anyway.

When 18-year old Farah Bivens, of Fullerton, was cast in her first role as the gilt bronze statue “Harmony,” by Charles Gumery atop the Opera Garnier in Paris, she immediately looked up the piece. “I didn’t understand how I would look like that,” Bivens said. “It is shocking to see yourself in another color and shiny.”

“I didn’t expect to be nude. I had just turned 18 so checked the box simply because I could, and I have liked it ever since.”

Nina Rietsch, a Laguna Beach native, was 4-years-old when cast for “Viking,” by Carl Larson. She begged her mother, who was involved in the festival in the late ‘60s and thought her daughter too young, to let her try out. Rietsch, 31, has loved being a part of the Pageant ever since and has continually posed in nude pieces.

“No matter how many times you pose nude, you always get that nervous, excited feeling in your stomach,” said Rietsch, who last year broke out of her frame and into the audience in a live dancing piece.

More than 425 volunteers convey the spirit of the pieces through makeup, headpieces, wardrobe and modeling. Since the days of Goddard and Mennan, logistical improvements and expansions have affected the aesthetics of the show and the safety of models, including the pageant’s policy of keeping the identity of the nude models secret.

“Every piece has a safety belt connected to it if anything goes wrong. My second year I was on my hands and knees reaching forward, which was hard to hold. There were two bars I put my arms on that curved down my back so I could lean my body against it. But a lot of the poses are difficult to hold even with the support system,”said Bivens, now 21.

“My pose this year is slightly uncomfortable because I’m on one leg and I have to turn my back around. You just have to contort your body to resemble the piece of art for the audience.”  This year Bivens will model as the Venus Pendant by Alphonse Fouquet.

The Pageant’s history has explored and expanded traditional art world boundaries and placed the figurative weight of each sculpture and painting on the shoulders of models who emote beauty,  sorrow and bliss to bring them to life. Today’s models have no qualms about being stark members of this artful expression.

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