On ViewWhitney Museum of American Art
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In his description of The Master and Form (2018), Brendan Fernandes claims to “queer” the illusionistic discipline of ballet by focusing on effort. This idea would be radical if it weren’t a few years late. Content showcasing the grit of ballet dancers is all over the internet—the Royal Ballet even posted a video on pointe shoe preparation back in 2013. Audiences are tired of the magic; they want to watch the dancers work, and Fernandes is following the trend. In his exhibition at the 2019 Whitney Biennial, dancers interact with sculptural devices in an endurance-based performance with overtones of bondage kink. Unfortunately, The Master and Form falls into the exact behavior it’s trying to question: hiding something dark and painful in an aestheticized package.
The set, designed by the architecture firm Norman Kelley, includes a mass of scaffolding, black sculptures positioned along the sides of the room, and a row of thick ropes hanging along the back windows. After performing a short barre on the scaffold, the dancers do slow ballet walks to their respective devices, exert themselves, then retire to the ropes to hang around and sink into various positions. At the performance I attended, one dancer approached a circular black rug designed for deepening the middle split. Instead of engaging with the object, he lay down next to the straps and assumed a classic faint, à la Sleeping Beauty. He was neither resting nor training; it seemed he was only there to look balletic. Another dancer, a young woman wearing a leather collar, développéd far above the tripod designed to support her leg, then placed her foot ceremoniously on its point. These sculptures are not designed to train the body, they’re designed to communicate the aesthetic of training and bondage.
One of the main problems of The Master and Form is that it uses BDSM to question the “hidden hierarchy” of ballet. The ballet world has never kept its hierarchy a secret. The power dynamics of dancer and ballet master have been documented at length in pop culture and the news. Questions surrounding sexual power dynamics are especially relevant considering New York City Ballet’s recent reckonings with sexual misconduct, from Peter Martins to Chase Finlay. Fernandes references the ballet hierarchy, but, in the end, the piece is hardly a critique of the existing power imbalance. It uses bondage imagery to beautify a toxic culture, misconstruing both kink and the systemic problems within the ballet community. Most ballet environments rely on a dynamic of absolute authority and unquestioning obedience. In a typical ballet class, dancers silently obey the instructions of the teacher, with no space for discussion. In contrast, BDSM twists oppressive structures into something controllable and pleasurable; it isn’t just exaggerated oppression.
What’s missing from this piece is the negotiation between the dancers and their “master.” In the Whitney version of The Master and Form, the dancers move and disperse in unison, following pre-set instructions from an unseen leader. The “master,” whether that’s interpreted as the ballet master archetype, the ballet discipline, or Fernandes himself, never appears. Consent is a cornerstone of BDSM, and inherent in consent is discussion. Fernandes knows this; he worked with rope bondage practitioners for his Ballet Kink (2019) Guggenheim exhibition. Yet The Master and Form doesn’t distinguish between an authority abusing their power and a master dominating a submissive. Domination is a service to the sub, and this baseline is crucial to practicing ethical BDSM. A submissive asks to be dominated; a ballet dancer is never afforded the opportunity to negotiate their place within the hierarchy. Fernandes’s work fails to communicate the radical nature of BDSM, and ultimately becomes a pastiche of kink culture.
Putting dancers in a museum setting is also difficult ethical territory. Benedict Nguyen’s Brooklyn Rail article on dancing at the Whitney addresses the ways museums leave dancers open to objectification, especially when placed next to art objects. Jasmine Hearn, who danced in the same performance with Nguyen, noted that because she was instructed not to engage with the audience, she felt like another object in the gallery. Fernandes’ choreography is guilty of the same behavior. The dancers at the Whitney only engaged with the audience through sideways glances. For most of the performance they maintained the thousand-yard stare of someone pretending to concentrate. This way of disengaging from the audience lends itself to voyeurism, especially when the onlookers are whispering to their friends and snapping pictures with their phones. An environment of induced objectification may have been Fernandes’ intention, but instead of commenting on the phenomenon, the piece only furthers ballet’s long history of dehumanizing dancers.
In an already fraught exhibition, it’s disappointing that this is the most performed dance piece in the Biennial. The Master and Form is surrounded by radical work, both at the Whitney and within Fernandes’s canon. Mariana Valencia, nibia pastrana santiago, and Madeline Hollander’s Whitney Biennial performances all engage with dance and agency in new ways. Fernandes’ past works Free Fall 49 (2017) and On Flashing Lights (2018) explore the power of dance to reclaim oppressive structures. His latest attempts to question ballet have been less successful. Foregrounding effort and aestheticizing training are opposing forces, and by pursuing both, Fernandes sacrificed a deeper examination of ballet as a discipline. The Master and Form tries to bring out the truths of ballet, but the result is disingenuous and regressive.