THE LIGHT-FILLED ATRIUM at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) was transformed into a dance floor on Sunday. Artist and choreographer Brendan Fernandes staged “Free Fall 49” (2017), a piece he developed in response to the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla. On June 12, 2016, a lone gunman killed 49 people and wounded 53.

 


June 9, 2019: Reuters reports on the performance of “Free Fall 49” by Brendan Fernandes at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. | Video by Reuters

 

His performance featured eight Washington-based dancers and Lauren Flax, a DJ who spun House music for the two-hour program. During the course of the set, she stopped the music abruptly and in reaction the collective of dancers stopped moving, fell to the ground and lay motionless. When the music resumed, they got up and began dancing again. This sequence was repeated 49 times, once for each victim of the fatal shooting. Some members of the public who gathered to watch, eventually joined in.

The June 9 performance was part of the Washington museum’s DC Pride programming. Fernandes has also presented “Free Fall 49” at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Greater Denton Arts Council in Denton, Texas.

A political performance, the piece activates the body as a symbol of resistance and resilience, queer pride and solidarity.

“In those 49 stops we fall to the ground and stay there in silence to give memorial to those queers but also we stand up to create resistance to create social solidarity in that political gesture of standing and then we continue to dance,” Fernandes told Reuters.

“I soon realized, through conversations with friends and community, that the effects of this event were much further reaching than in Orlando alone. The broader and even international queer community was affected. I also realized the confluence of my studio investigations where the body can fall but can always get back up…” — Brendan Fernandes

In a Q&A with SAAM curator Saisha Grayson Fernandes talked about his practice and how he uses the body through dance and movement to represent experiences and narratives. Here he talks about how he developed “Free Fall 49”:

    GRAYSON: At what point did you feel you could respond to the shootings in Orlando, and how has choosing to engage this event changed your work?

    FERNANDES: Before the shooting in Orlando, much of the research behind Free Fall 49 was ongoing. I was participating in residencies and making explorations in the studio around the falling body. Especially the falling body on stage or in ballet. I was exploring metaphors around the falling body and queer politics, exploring what it means to fall, to fail and to get back up; both within the context of ballet, dance and performance, and within our broader political moment.

    When the shooting happened it was at first a great personal shock. I soon realized, through conversations with friends and community, that the effects of this event were much further reaching than in Orlando alone. The broader and even international queer community was affected. I also realized the confluence of my studio investigations where the body can fall but can always get back up and the Pulse Orlando shooting where forty-nine dancers fell but could never, physically, rise again. It felt important to memorialize these lives and to create a work in which queer performers and audiences could come together to experience the gesture of falling as an act of remembrance and the gesture of getting back up as an expression of our ability to overcome adversity; to experience the solidarity of dancing together again.

Born in Nairobi, Kenya, Fernandes is a Canadian artist currently based in Chicago. He earned an MFA from The University of Western Ontario (2005) and is an artist-in-residence and visiting faculty member at Northwestern University. His work is featured in the Whitney Biennial, which is on view through Sept. 22. CT

 

“Commons Projects: Brendan Fernandes, A Call and Response,” a dance-based installation, is at MCA Chicago, June 18-Oct. 13, 2019

 

FIND MORE about Brendan Fernandes on his website

 

IMAGE: Top right, Brendan Fernandes. | Photo by Milo Bosh, Courtesy the Graham Foundation, Chicago via brendanfernandes.ca

 

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