This week I spoke to director, choreographer and academic Nando Messias about his show ‘The Sissy’s Progress’, an artistic response to a homophobic attack he was subject to just over ten years ago, which is on at Toynbee Studios (London) this coming week. Here we talk about theatre, gender and the power of the arts as a tool to bring about social change.
Interview © Amie Taylor 2015 (@AmieAmieTay)
AT: It says you’re a movement director, choreographer and an academic of queer theory and performance; they must all lend themselves to each other well, in a way that is really fantastic for your work. Could you start by telling us how you became interested in choreography and movement?
NM: I became interested in that from a very early age. When I was six my mother would drop me off at ballet class with my sister, she was the one taking the lessons and I would sit in the corner and observe. I remember wanting to take classes, but I was from a very traditional country, Brazil, which has a very macho culture. So I wasn’t allowed to take classes until I was seventeen and could pay for my own classes; that’s relatively late for ballet standards, but it’s always been to do with reaching out for the things that I was denied, so in that sense was a very political decision. It was something I wanted to do, but wasn’t available to me, and that comes in to my work, with the make up, high heels – all other signifiers of gender.
Then I went to drama school, and studied dance, then learned of this very famous German choreographer, Pina Bausch. And that’s when everything fell in to place for me, because I was training in theatre and also dance, so I found this language that mixed both.
I suppose my work is the queer version of dance theatre.
AT: Could you tell us a little about the academic side of queer theory and performance, what work have you done around that?
NM: In a nutshell, my Phd was on the Effeminate Body. I did a study of the history of that body, how it was perceived in Ancient Rome, and in Britain, also a history of cross dressing, a whole gamete of possibilities. But also how that body also suffers violence, social violence, how it is constructed by that violence, but how it can also be an instrument of violence, because it’s so extravagant and flamboyant and how it disregards the walls of gender. So that was my Phd, but there was also the practise based study of that; I created a dance piece. it was a duet with a dancer I have a long history with.
AT: And your show, The Sissy’s Progress is on at Toynbee Studios next week, this work stemmed from a homophobic attack?
NM: Yes, that’s correct. That happened in the summer of 2005.
AT: And was there a moment where you made that decision that that would be your response to that, or was it something that happened more slowly over time?
NM: It came more slowly, I think I needed the distance, the perspective, which is why it took me so long. Things fell slowly in to place, I was doing my Phd at the time, so a lot of my reading was around social violence. I knew I had the opportunity to do something, to change that reality and over time it felt like it became more of a responsibility to do something, to raise awareness of that issue.
AT: Yes, and the arts are an incredible way to do that, and to respond. I was reading earlier that in the piece you go back to the spot where it happened. How was that for you during the creative process?
NM: It was really difficult, it took me so long to go back to that spot, as you can imagine. It’s so charged with disturbing memories. The first time I went, I just walked past and I could see the images, hear the voices [of the attack]. But I knew when given the opportunity to do this piece as a work in progress at Toynbee in summer 2014 that I couldn’t pass on the opportunity to reclaim that space. I take the audience there and we stand in silence for a moment. I realised there was nothing more that I needed to do, and that in itself is very significant and powerful.
And yes, the arts are a good tool for changing this situation, and I have tried to extend this process to other people, so I offer workshops to LGBTQ people where I talk about arts and offer them skills and told to change their life around. To use this situation as a starting point to create something beautiful.
AT: And when are the workshops?
NM: I’m organising one at Brighton Fringe and two as part of the Toynbee performances. But they are to be confirmed.
AT: And in terms of audience, who are you targeting with this show? Who is it for?
NM: I’d like it to be for the LGBT community, but not only them as it would be preaching to the converted, so I hope it speaks to them but also to all the people that feel left out, lead different or unique [lives] or who have been excluded. I have taken this to the LGBT circuit, but have presented outside of there as well, and it’s been really powerful when I feel that someone in the audience really relates to it and connects to it.
AT: And I think a lot of people on some level know that feeling of being left out –
NM: Yes, or they may be close to someone who has suffered that, and I hope they’ll be touched by it.
AT: And in terms of form, do you call it a dance theatre piece?
NM: I’d say it’s part dance-theatre, so half is inside the theatre and that’s very choreographed and theatrical, then for the second half I invite the audience outside to take walk with me, so it’s part promenade performance. Then we go back in the theatre. The promenade bit of this piece is really important to me, as it’s about taking this issue outs on to the streets where these attacks happen. It’s about visibility and being visible in public and social spaces, so that the audience can experience a little of what it’s like to be visible in public.
AT: And I imagine that by going outside you then attract another audience of people who collide with the work without meaning to. Have you experienced any interaction from people in the street when you took the show outside in its development phase?
NM: Yes, I did. The audience have witnessed the verbal abuse I receive, they experience it, which for me is making the point of the piece. I want them to see that this is still an issue and that queer people still suffer abuse.
AT: Yes, which is sadly still true today, there’s a long way to go.
NM: Yes, there is.
Thank you so much for speaking to us today Nando, we’d like to wish you the very best for your performances at Toynbee Studios next week, and Brighton Fringe.
Booking for 17th / 18th March 2016 at Toynbee Studios
Follow Nando on Twitter: @NancyMessias