Nando Messias & The Sissy’s Progress

This week we interviewed Nando Messias, performance artist, dancer and doctor by the Central School of Speech and Drama.

On 17-18 March 2016, Nando concluded his first UK tour of The Sissy’s Progress, with great repercussion. This London performances took the streets of Toynbee Studios where, in 2007, Nando suffered a homophobic attack by 8 men. The Sissy’s Progress reclaims this same street, with live music, balloon and Nando himself in an amazing dress, high heels and the usual extravagant accessories.

The Guardian and Loverboy have already described a lot of the performance itself (click and read!) but we asked Nando to talk to us about his creative process, his path from Brazil to London and his expectations with this new work.

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Born in Porto Alegre, Nando went do drama school, where he first became interested in dance.

I came to dance later in life. It was a political choice because when I was a kid I wasn’t allowed to take ballet lessons. So when I did I already had my own money to pay for to and could make my own decisions.

He took on classical ballet because, as he explains, he wanted something with rigid structure:

Ballet is full of codes: the hand, the head, each movement means something. And this code is extremely segregated – the man behaves in one way and the woman in another. For instance, the palm of the man’s hand is always looking up. The woman’s is always turned down. I was always interest in learning the women’s technique, not the men’s, and learn how to dance on pointe (which I did).

One ballet teacher introduced Nando to the work of Pina Bausch, which awakened in him an even stronger desire to pursue dance. As one can see in The Sissy’s Progress, his work clearly revolves between dance and theatre, and Nando quotes Pina as one his biggest influences.

I actually auditioned for Pina Bausch’s company in Germany and during the audition I realized that there wasn’t a space for me there. Not because I was an effeminate body, but because what I really wanted was to be there in a gown and not in a smoking. And they would put me in a smoking (…). I was never interested in correcting my body, to make me fit into a masculine frame.

Image: Loredana Denicola
Image: Loredana Denicola

This explains why Nando’s PhD studied the effeminate body “(…) in performance, dance, film and literature… and the social perceptions of this body. It was a practical PhD so the final work also included a performance work, which was entitled Sissy “.   The sissy wears make-up, accessories and high heels, inhabiting the male body, and at its core there is an attitude inherent to the artist’s personality. According to the artist, the sissy’s image is interesting precisely because it is an unrecognizable body, but a body, which takes pride in its exceptions. Paradoxically, the artists see an intrinsic relationship with violence in this body.

This body (the sissy) goes through violence, suffers violence and is built by this violence. At the same time it becomes a violent body: not in a physically aggressive way but violent in that it disregards the social codes of gender.  It’s violent because it’s not black on white. It’s neither a masculine man or a feminine woman or a drag queen. So people don’t know how to respond to this exceptional body. (…) The physical work comes a lot from this, from trying to understand how this body walks, seats and behaves in society.

Nando Messias wants to set gender possibilities wide open, to transpose the  “feminine woman/masculine men“. And the artistic choice was to perform this protest through the body itself, without using a verbal discourse, which sets an universal tone to the piece.

Nando Messias: The Sissy's Progress ©Richard Eaton
Nando Messias: The Sissy’s Progress ©Richard Eaton

ARTISTIC PROCESS

Nando’s PhD was concluded in 2011. From there, it took 5 years until the premier of The Sissy’s Progress – almost 10 years after the attack.

I need this time to process the emotions and the psychological and emotional difficulties of going through this. I believe the artistic work requires critical distance. So I didn’t do this as therapy, I am not coming to terms with this thing during the performance. That I have already done personally. In a way, what brought me to this point was that. I said: ok, now I have some perspective to talk about this thing – I have an artistic vision based on what happened to me.

One thing that forced me to create this performance was a sense of responsibility: this had happened to me but not just to me. In my research I saw that there was a great number of attacks in this are of London where I live. And all over the world there are a growing number of attacks to gay people or visibly transgender. I didn’t have an opportunity but an obligation to do something with this. If I didn’t it would chase me, I thought.

This time Nando works with a big band and team and had to work around some new issues to build the piece. As he explains:

It was a challenge to develop their sensibilities through movement, because the boys on stage are musicians – not actors or dancers. And the performance changed a lot because it requires audience participation, especially when we head to the streets. Then there is not only the audience, which came to see the show, but also passers-by, and they influence a lot. I never know what is going to happen.

But I always knew that I needed to start inside a theatre, because it is important that I know that the audience is with me and I am with then when we go to the streets – we protect ourselves. So I needed this intimate moment. I then developed the return to the theatre, because I realized that after they throw water at me (an aggressive gesture) I needed to find a space to resolve this. So there has to be a return to the theatre, that safe space, in which there is a conclusion – even through it’s not a happy ending.“

The two presentations in London were originally the end of the tour, which also went to, Belfast, Liverpool, Southend and Margate. But the project’s response has been taking it further, and new dates have already been set in different locations.

In Liverpool the cars would go by and honk in the rhythm of the music, people would leave the coffee shops and come out dancing, it was super positive. In Southend the performance took place outside of any queer context. I thought that this would be a great obstacle because no one in the audience would identify with it. But people do identify, any person which feels that there is something inside themselves which is not a perfect fit to society’s standards.

© Sam Williams
© Sam Williams

So, we asked, how does the performance work when it is set in these other places, not originally linked to the attack?

When I conceived it the idea was to always visit spaces which had had a homophobic attack. That wasn’t always possible. In Liverpool we visited a site where a homosexual had been murdered. But in Belfast it took place just in a gay neighborhood. In other places there was no particular relationship, but the work in itself is already a celebration, a demonstration of the prejudice that still exists. This is one of the main points of this work; that when we head out to the streets people still point and comment. I want people to see that this prejudice is still very much out there, in 2016. Even I thought for a while that there was no more need for this work, that this had ended”.

Nando Messias fights to dig a place for him in the world and in the arts. Through the colours and the live music in the piece, Nando reaffirms part of his Brazilian origin, and the carnival. In this particular moment in which Brazil finds itself, The Sissy’s Progress is even more relevant:

For the necessary LGBT rights fight  (Brazil holds the world record in crimes against transgender). But also for all the political upraise which has been happening. People are now taking the streets in protest, using the streets, this democratic and public space. This performance is a claim in this sense. We go to the streets to have our voices heard.