The Muses, the Pierides, the Sirens and Odile Duboc’s Les Fernands

Today in my class I, Tiresias: Ovid’s Mythical Women and Contemporary Feminist Art, we are reading books 5 and 6 of the Roman poet’s epic Metamorphoses. Midway through book 5, we encounter the song of the Muses (which includes, among others, the tale of Proserpina/Persephone’s abduction by Pluto/Hades) which is part of a contest with the nine daughters of Piereus and which includes the origin tale of the another group of mythical singers, the Sirens.

The all-female singing collectives’ contest including a song about another all-female singing collective made me think about the performers that the French dancer and choreographer Odile Duboc dubbed “Les Fernands”, created in the early 1980s. I discovered Duboc’s work in Pierre Bal-Blanc’s contribution to the book Uchronia compiled under the direction of Annie Vigier and Franck Apertet (les gens d’Uterpan). Les Fernands were named after the street Fernand-Dol where Duboc had her studio and they were a group of performers, sometime men, but mainly women, would evoke the poetry of the everyday by their subtly synchronized movements and interventions. Here is the only image of Duboc’s Les Fernands I could find online:

Here is how Duboc writes about Les Fernands in a 2007 text, quoted in Bal-Blanc’s essay:

It was in the middle of teaching a movement that one would call routine that I understood how these simple gestures, multiplied identically, could generate an incredible poetic force if they were lived in the same places from which they’d been taken. The Fernands have been around for more than twenty years. After having dropped them for a while for the simple reason that the media had catalogued me as a “street choreographer” (I have always continued to love traditional stages; I’ve never stopped feeling the necessity to create “real shows”), I took up with them again during a workshop I was running and have since got into the habit of passing them on regularly, of talking about them. The positive side of this transmission comes from the simplicity of the acts and the playful aspect of the themes touched upon. No dance experience is required; understanding the work comes through listening exercises that, before entering into the construction phase of these little characters, will develop in each participant an active and critical eye on what is happening. One day is enough to really tackle the work and not just skim through it. Taking turns as an actor or spectator, each person can understand what is at stake in contemporary art (the relation to space, time, musicality, to oneself, to others).

Duboc’s description of the ‘training’ of Les Fernands, wherein they undergo a process of listening and watching, taking turns as spectators and then actors, made me reflect on the synergy between the Muses (who tell the tale to Minerva/Athena), the Pierides (whose song had previously been paraphrased) and the object of the tale (the Sirens). On the one hand, the transformation of the Pierides into magpies, after losing their contest and the origin narrative of the Sirens, demonstrates the consistent perspective of the Muses as both victors and singers. At the same time, however, Minerva, who has been listening all along, at the beginning of Metamorphoses book 6, becomes embroiled in her own creative contest – this time a weaving contest with Arachne – and her role as spectator switches to that of contestant and performer.

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