Brendan Fernandes discusses dance, architecture, and identity with the curators of his current New York show.
Dance is more than a heady research interest for Brendan Fernandes—it’s embodied in his muscle memory. The New York–based artist of Kenyan-Indian-Canadian descent trained in classical and modern techniques, earning a dual undergraduate degree in dance and visual art. Over the past several years, his work has explored questions of identity, translation, labor, and movement vocabulary through performances and installations that often utilize hired dancers. In a 2013 performance called Night Shift, developed for Toronto’s dusk-to-dawn Nuit Blanche event, dancers shredded gold paper and moved it around a space. The work obliquely referenced the inauguration performance of King Louis XIV. For The Working Move, a 2012 performance that will be restaged this month at the Stedelijk in Amsterdam, Fernandes orchestrates a fictional casting call for dancers, where pedestals and plinths are used interchangeably by the performers in pas de deux sequences.
The Inverted Pyramid, Fernandes’s current solo exhibition at Abrons Art Center, unites his research in classical dance and questions of ethnicity and migration within the charged framework of an orientalist ballet. The show takes its point of departure from a famous scene in La Bayadère, choreographed by Marius Petipa to the music of Ludwig Minkus and debuted at the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1877. La Bayadere (“the temple dancer”) follows the story of star-crossed lovers, the bayadère Nikiya and the warrior Solor, whose happiness is thwarted by a High Brahmin who desires the dancer for himself. In The Kingdom of Shades, one of the most memorable scenes in ballet, the warrior, distraught at the death of his love, sees an apparition of her in an opium-induced dream. The entire corps de ballet enters the stage one by one, performing a long series of arabesques, over and over, creating an image of undulating lines for the audience to gaze upon.
Fernandes spoke with the co-curators of The Inverted Pyramid about the exhibition’s conceptual underpinnings, relationship to labor and his previous work.
Jess Wilcox One point of departure for The Inverted Pyramid is the gesture of the arabesque. In the conversations leading up to the show, we discussed various constellations among the media of dance, movement, sculpture, and architecture. In particular, it seems that The Studio: Kingdom of Shades, the installation of cutouts of figures striking the arabesque pose, address the dialogue between sculpture and dance.
Brendan Fernandes I totally agree that the cutouts oscillate between being sculpture and indications of dance gestures. I am thinking about the arabesque as a movement that requires the body to use a lot of strength and endurance for the outcome to look effortless. This is a true test of fortitude. As a cutout the action is present but in a static form: it is held for an unending amount of time. This is where the 2-D work becomes a sculpture, and in the realm of the performance, it also becomes a prop. A live dancer can’t hold the position for a long time, and in the ballet La Bayadère, in the sequence of arabesques performed by the corps de ballet in the “Kingdom of Shades” section, this test of physical strength is definitely palpable. But for the inanimate cutout the position is held for an unending amount of time due to the fact that it has been engineered to hold the position through a supporting buttress.
I like the idea of the buttress as it relates to architecture. It also reminds me of classical figurative sculpture. In Roman copies of Greek sculptures, odd tree limbs and stumps are incorporated into the work to add support, because the original material (bronze) is lighter than marble. It is not uncommon to see a carved tree trunk attached to a leg in a sculpture. This was done so that the marble does not break. In terms of the dance itself, I like the way that in my performance the ballerina, Lauren Post, engages and moves the cutouts to create a dance. She is their puppeteer but they are also stand-ins for her body (the cutouts are sized to her measurements). It becomes a game, a competition between these two bodies.
JW Another medium that you have talked about in relationship to dance is architecture. In what ways do you see the two in line?
BF The body and the cutouts both have a relationship with architecture. In ballet, the body is required to make a certain shape and to hold positions. It is challenged to physically assume different shapes that become architectural. The position of the arabesque requires a specific balance and strength to function. The leaning torso and the extended back leg work together to counterbalance each other. The cutouts stand up and infinitely hold the position due to engineered supports that make them fully stable. Aside from this example, dance itself is architectural, not only because of movements in space but, for instance, floor patterns that mark and direct bodies to move in specific directions. Dancers are always fully aware of their surroundings and question space so that they can move efficiently.
Wendy Vogel One unique feature of this exhibition is how it works with notions of interior and exterior space. Can you talk about how you’ve considered elements of the exhibition to work with or against the brutalist modernism of Abrons Arts Center?
BF I think of the body in dance as making shapes that become architectural. For this show I am using the architectural element of Abrons to further highlight movements and directions. The performance on April 2 was staged inside, and the audience was only able to view it from outside the gallery or on the amphitheater steps. The dancing body is highlighted in the windows of Abrons, where people gather outside to view it. Through this spectacle the viewership is questioned: Who is the audience is and who is performing? Also, I am using the windows to act as a way to direct movement: the curved bank of windows will have vinyl transfers on them that suggest arabesques, I am using the architecture to create a pattern that suggests a directional movement. The arabesque is a delicate gesture but one with much power. I like how its flowing line composition acts in contrast to the hard and heavy line of Abrons’s structure.
JW Why did you choose the title The Inverted Pyramid?
BF The Inverted Pyramid for me recalls the shape that the body creates when it is in an arabesque. The arm extended forward, the leg extended backward, and the foot that the body stands on create three points in space that make an inverted pyramid. My work questions notions of power, and in ballet there are many concerns of power. The system of a ballet company uses a hierarchical structure: the corps de ballet, soloists, principal dancers, and of course, directors and teachers mark the ranks of people in the company. It becomes a pyramid structure, no different than other systems in our society. The inverted pyramid suggests an opposition to the normal pyramid power structures seen in our world, but it too is a powerful way to think about power dynamics. The system is being challenged, a single point carries the rest of the structure. The arabesque illustrates this in a perfect way, where all of the body’s weight is held and support by a single leg, but that balance is only held for a limited amount of time because the body will tire. The power shifts and breaks.
WV Regarding this question of labor in balletic movement and live performance, I'm reminded that the filmmaker Shirley Clarke once said, “Dance is what happens between the poses.” But what is photographed as balletic movement is often a virtuosic pose—the full extension of the arabesque, for instance. We don’t value the labor represented between the poses. That’s what made a work like Eleanor Antin’s Caught in the Act, 1973, so provocative. In this video Antin awkwardly gets into ballet postures, with the help of props and assistants, and dictates to a photographer to capture her movements before she falls. I am also thinking about Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s notion of “maintenance work.” How have representations of labor and conditioning entered your work? How have you discussed this with the dancers you have commissioned for performances?
BF My work definitely responds to the body in action and how gesture and movements in dance are considered in the process of working. There is a rigor and tremendous amount of training and time put into a dancer’s career. Dancers have to be dedicated to their practice at an early age. This is demanding and develops a very strict work ethic. I think this is one example of labor that I investigate in my work; it is also a place where I question how this labor is acknowledged and valued under a capitalist structure. Many dancers struggle to find work, and the ones who are lucky enough to be in companies are oftentimes paid very low wages. Returning to your quote by Clarke, the in-between places of dance are of interest to me. It makes me think of André Lepecki’s notion of starting and stopping: that dance is only appreciated in the moment of action and the places of stoppage are seen as breaks. In thinking of this space as a break, it suggests that the body is inactive and at rest, when in fact it is quite the opposite. The still body is still active and working. Muscles fatigue fast when left in a specific hold for a long period of time. Also, performing dancers are always in a space of engagement, and even when doing less rigorous movements, they are aware of their surroundings and are working. I always talk to the dancers I hire about the concept behind my pieces and engage them in the conversation, it often becomes a collaboration. In a number of my works I ask my performers to do a repetitive movement where the action might seem mundane. In Night Shift, for instance, I collaborated with Michael Trent of Dancemakers, Toronto; in this work dancers execute a series of tasks for twelve hours that relate to office work and labor, shredding gold paper into confetti from dusk until dawn. The gold paper accumulated through the course of the performance and at dawn when the “new day” arrived the piece ended with all the confetti being thrown in the air. I had an audience member come up to me saying, “This gesture is such a waste of time.” I think this is curious as it made me question what makes a movement dance, but also what is a valuable gesture, what would make it a worthy action? Wasted time also has come up in this process, where even some dancers feel that having idle time in my work is not working hard enough, not considered “dance.” They feel that if an audience is present then they constantly need to be moving in a way that entertains.
WV We have talked about the stoppage of motion in your works and how that relates to the notion of stillness as a critical operation for dance. Of course, arresting movement also brings to mind gestures of refusal, like the strike and the protest. By contrast, Peter Sloterdijk has defined being-toward-movement as a modernist impetus, and Sianne Ngai has talked about “animatedness” (excessive movement and exaggerated emotion) as a stereotype of the racial other. Do you have any thoughts on that?
BF I think by nature the word “movement” suggests a political reference that speaks to the ways that I locate labor in my research. My interpretation of being-toward-movement is a socialist ideal that I relate to the idea of a Marxist imaginary and the space of social utopia. With regards to Ngai’s theory of animatedness and excessive movements, it makes me think about the actions of post-Fordist labor and how many of our movements are small and attached to machines—for example, moving a mouse or using a telephone. That said, we still today exhaust ourselves in big actions and how this can relate to a stereotype of a radical other, where the gesture in its largeness can suggest an excessive amount of space, which in this case is perhaps wasted or overstepped.
JW We have been discussing how the exhibition explores the process of translation, which has been an ongoing interest of yours. The Inverted Pyramid unpacks translation as both the literal linguistic operation and a more abstract form of cultural transformation. How do these two systems of translation function in the show?
BF Yes, translation is a part of many of my works. I have been looking at ways that cultural memory allows for language to be forgotten and/or lost though migration, an example of this is my video Foe, where I hire an acting tutor to teach me to speak in the cultural accents of my heritage. The instructor teaches me ways to move and position my mouth so that I can sound more Kenyan, Indian, and Canadian. In the work I am reciting a passage from a book with the same titled as my piece—a sequel to Robinson Crusoe written by J. M. Coetzee. In this book, Friday has been mutilated; his tongue has been removed and he cannot speak. For the work I have memorized the specific passage where Crusoe explains this to another. I have also been concerned with how dance lacks a standard language of notation, and how the choreography of many historical ballets have been lost due to this fact. Since dance is recalled in the body through positions and set phrases learned through repetition, I am also curious about how the vernacular of everyday and choreography is remembered via muscle memory. In The Inverted Pyramid, translation is presented in a few other forms. One is through the notion of a live performer physically moving through a space and interpreting movements. This may seem simple, but it is tested where she is asked to do this for a duration of time doing a consecutive arabesque. The body inevitably recalls and knows how to perform the action but fails as it gets tired. Another way that translation is present in this work is through still images that create movements through repeating forms. They form directions and begin to show ways and patterns on how to move. The arabesque is a ballet movement but it also takes its name from Islamic cultural iconography, in that another form of translation is presented. The patterns and motifs shown in this installation portray lines and forms that the body in ballet takes on, but further play on interpreting orientalist cultural notions about the exotic.
JW Your mention of the orientalist impulse reminds me of the characterization of the arabesque by Carlo Blasis, the Italian dance theoretician from the 17th century. He says, "In the arabesques, the body departs from the perpendicular and leans with an engaging lack of constraint." To Blasis, the movement of the arabesque is infused with desire. The pause of the arabesque and the stillness of its balance convey a pregnant anticipation of the next movement—which is always that of release. Thus as a gesture and pose, its social meaning seems tied to orientalist notions of desire in La Bayadere—and perhaps in ballet as a larger project of movement.
The Inverted Pyramid is on view until May 11.
Wendy Vogel is associate editor at Modern Painters. Her criticism has appeared in publications such as ART LIES, Artforum, The Brooklyn Rail, Flash Art, frieze, and Red Hook Journal. She has organized independent curatorial projects in venues such as PERFORMA09 and the Künstlerhaus Schloss Balmoral (Bad Ems, Germany).
Jess Wilcox is the programs coordinator for The Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum. Previously she has worked on curatorial teams at Performa, and Storm King Art Center, and has contributed to a number of publications.