George Balanchine once famously said, “Ballet is woman.” Brendan Fernandes, a Kenyan-born Indian-Canadian artist and choreographer whose work has been staged, of late, at the Whitney Biennial and the Guggenheim, would probably counter that ballet is work. Indeed, his Contract and Release, currently in performance at The Noguchi Museum, most closely aligns with his 2017 piece, Clean Labor, in which Fernandes turned the movements of hotel workers into choreography and staged the whole thing, cheekily, at the Wythe Hotel.
For Contract and Release, three dancers ceremoniously enter the upper galleries, assume their positions amid the collection installation Body-Space Devices — a selection of Noguchi’s works that allude to the human form — and proceed to slowly perform a prescribed set of tasks. These “tasks” include striking a series of Martha Graham poses (not unlike “voguing,” which felt, to me, like a silent nod to the dance floor as historically queer space) and constructing or deconstructing a wood maquette of one of Noguchi’s interlocking sculptures, alternately “Fishface” or “Figure.” All of this is done while employing the grueling Graham technique of contracting and releasing core muscles.
If this weren’t demanding enough, a set of “training devices” — wooden rocking chairs fabricated by Fernandes to resemble those created by Noguchi for Graham’s landmark work Appalachian Spring — figure prominently. The dancers are often balancing, their legs bent and arms extended, atop them. Both Noguchi and Graham are fitting collaborators for Fernandes. Graham believed that ballet, with its emphasis on appearing effortless, lacked drama, so she invented a form of dance that made visible the effort — and thus the passion — behind its movement, evidencing the weight and breath. For Noguchi, motion was vital to sculpture. Like Fernandes, he was interested in cultures of movement, in particular, our physical habits of being— the way we lift something off the floor, for example, or sit in a chair.
If watching three dancers perform the effort of movement for an hour sounds dull, it isn’t. I watched, rapt, as a dancer pushed a rocking chair across the gallery — lunging forward deeply, her head bowed, and then drawing herself upward, only to repeat the cycle all over again, like Sisyphus.
The suffering behind the beauty is the artist’s point. Known as a choreographer who plays with audience expectations, Fernandes, like Graham before him, renders visible the invisible. His work investigates the role of the (queer, non-white) body in contemporary art, and Contract and Release, with its painstakingly slow choreography, forces viewers to pay remarkable, almost voyeuristic, attention to the body. We are so close — every ripple and contraction apparent— that the body is laid bare as as a site of power, vulnerability, and fetishization.
But there’s also pleasure and freedom in (the) work. Much of the movement is improvised. A pas de deux in which the dancers astride the rocking chairs arch and bow their torsos, arms raised like birds in flight, is particularly moving. In the final section, the dancers gather at Noguchi’s iconic red “Play Sculpture” — undulating around its curves and, occasionally, brushing up against each other. Given the asceticism of the piece this feels daring yet appropriate as an ending: All of Noguchi’s sculptures beckon touch, but this is the only one in which touch is permitted.
Brendan Fernandes: Contract and Release continues at The Noguchi Museum (9-01 33rd Rd., Long Island City, Queens) through March 8. Dancers are Héctor Cerna, Violetta Komyshan, Victor Lozano, Tiffany Mangulabnan, Oisín Monaghan, and Amy Saunder. The next performance will take place on Saturday, January 25. See website for full details and additional performance dates.