Feature: Reclaiming the streets - and owning ballet

Wednesday 9 March 2016

Nando Messias was beaten up on the street behind Toynbee Studios in an act of homophobic hatred. After years of dreaming up his response, he presents The Sissy’s Progress, a spectacle of provocation, celebration and hyper flamboyance – at the same location, on 17 & 18 March. Part dance-theatre, part walking performance, The Sissy’s Progress leads its audience out onto the streets with a live marching band, confronting the harsh contradictions of gender and violence of city life, standing up for sissies everywhere.
Originally from Brazil, Nando went to drama school, graduating with a first-class honours degree in acting. He is also classically trained as a dancer and moved to London to study for a master’s degree in performance, staying on to do a PhD at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. As well as a practitioner, he is a movement director, choreographer and an academic of queer theory and performance. We asked Nando to tell us about his love of – and training in – ballet.

It’s so important for me to make my dance training my own. The Sissy’s Progress has allowed me to focus on particular elements of my development, reviewing my past as a dancer, and gazing ahead to my future as an artist. The starting point for my next project will be an investigation of my training, a closer look at the material I already have in me; my personal, bodily archive, as it were.

In that sense, The Sissy’s Progress has been a lens through which to investigate my past and to image a new future. The political focus and direct action strategies used in the piece have always been in line with my personal approach to dance training. I was seventeen when I started taking ballet classes – relatively late by ballet standards. The delay, however, was not a choice I made myself. I remember, aged six, accompanying my elder sister to classes and being relegated to sit in a corner of the room, to the position of observer. It felt like a perverse form of punishment then. I still remember the piano accompanist (also sitting in ‘my’ corner of the room), the mirror-covered walls, the light and the temperature in the room, the pink leotards with matching tights and georgette skirts. My desire, even at that early age, was not to be the observer but to be involved, in practice, in the doing of ballet. Being the only boy in the room, my gender rendered me conspicuous: a feeling I carry with me to this day.

As I became a young adult, I gained the choice to make my ballet dream come true. This came with the autonomy of adulthood: to me, my act of enrolling in ballet classes is political. As a queer artist, my choices have often been deliberate acts of reaching out for things that had been previously denied me: the makeup, the high heels – and ballet.

My first two Masters both trained in well established academies: one at the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, founded by prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso and the other at the Folkwang in Germany (Kurt Joos, Pina Bausch, Susanne Linke). Their history came to influence my history, choices, aesthetic and principles.

I realised quickly that ballet, in quite a strict manner, replicated the social codes of gender I was keen to escape: masculinity and femininity were methodically segregated in gesture and space. I had to grapple with my effeminacy in the beginning, but soon realised that there was power in my active rejection of masculinity that was yet to come. I became unwilling to conform. I had no interest in attempting to ‘masculinise’ my body through the codes of ballet. I gave up trying to lift ballerinas— not before rehearsing and performing a season of an especially harrowing version of Coppelia, where I had to walk effortlessly and gracefully on stage with a female dancer perched on my left shoulder.

I began to allow my personal voice to come through: out with the male technique and in with the female one. I began to have more independence as an artist, becoming an auteur. My first choreography was a dance version of Euripides’ Medea. In looking back into theatre history, I connected with the tradition of male actors playing female characters. In considering German dance, I discovered male dancers en pointe. As for ballet, I learnt of the ‘en travesti’ tradition. Particularly memorable (and hugely inspiring) to me was Anthony Dowell’s interpretation of Carabosse in the Royal Ballet’s 1994 production of Sleeping Beauty. Also of import are Widow Simone’s clog dance in Frederick Ashton’s version of La Fille Mal Gardée and the ugly stepsisters in Cinderella, perhaps most celebratedly performed by Robert Helpmann and Ashton himself.

Through ballet, I had finally found my own space and carved my own direction.

Catch The Sissy’s Progress at Toynbee Studios, 17 (7.30pm) & 18 (7pm & 8.45pm) March

Brighton Fringe Festival, 7 May 2016

Queer Lates at the Horniman Museum and Gardens, 12 May

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