Voguing Against Tradition
(M) is for (M)imosa, an unassuming , gender-bending, dancer. Mimosa transforms. S/he is multiple personalities rolled into one: a Latina rockstar, a ballerina, a student studying abroad, a butch queen, and Prince, amongst other things: “I am Mimosa.”
This is Trajal Harrell’s Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church: Medium (M), which had its premiere at the Kitchen in February. It is the third in a series of performances [Small (S) premiered at the New Museum in 2009 and Extra Small (XS) premiered at Abrons Arts Center in January] derived from the question: “What would have happened in 1963 if someone from the voguing ball scene in Harlem had come downtown to perform alongside the early postmoderns at Judson Church?” Harrell is exceptionally smart in his approach to (M) a.k.a (M)imosa, investigating what constitutes contemporary dance with glamour, humor, and wit. Despite what his starting question may make you think, the result feels nothing like an academic endeavor. In drawing from the voguing dance tradition, a performance subculture that emerged in the early 1960s primarily featuring gays, lesbians, and transvestites from the African-American and Latino community, Harrell calls upon a specificity in human experience that bore little presence in early postmodern thought. That is, the universalist notion that everyday movement is considered dance and anyone can be a dancer.
Set in a formalized variety show cum underground beauty pageant, (M)imosa loosely weaves four personas together in a seductive, sometimes rambling narrative. A topless and sculpted Marlene Monteiro Freitas gives a memorable introduction. She moves through exaggerated fashion model poses and lewd references to her body with ease and fluidity. She tears extensions out of her black curly hair while her perky breasts bounce up and down. She vogues as if she were on a catwalk, giggles coyly, fondles herself, and then pulls down her black leggings, mooning the audience. Freitas’s frenzied, but distinctly fabulous persona sets the tone for the evening while also standing in stark contrast to the modest Harell, coquettish and sumptuous François Chaignaud, and androgynously sexy Cecilia Bengolea. Cross-dressed Chaignaud, initially sitting in the audience, makes a beautiful, dramatic appearance as s/he descends onto the stage while singing an operatic melody about fucking. Other highlights include Harrell’s elegant New-Way vogue solo, which he choreographed while “studying abroad in Peru” and Bengolea’s creepy, toppling spider dance in a fully-covered nude body suit complete with stuffed phallus and monstrous heels à la Marilyn Manson’s Mechanical Animals album cover.
The pacing throughout the 90-minute performance is a bit inconsistent. There are a few too many predictable claims of being the real Mimosa and two similar back-to-back sets of lip-synching duets. However, (M)imosa climaxes with a compelling black light “fashion show”; replete with neon-glowing thongs, lips, eyelids, and bikini straps, it is an effective, visual critique on minstrel shows. Watching clips from old blackface performances is a visually jarring experience: the mask-like effect of pitch black faces painted against the lighter skin around the eyes and lips, along with offensively foolish personas, is appalling. Harrell’s brilliant criticism of this practice continues to the point of exhaustion on the performers’ and viewers’ part. But exhaustion, and even annoyance, seems to be what he is going after as he raises the obvious question: How could a social practice like blackface have been accepted for as long as it was? The evening concludes with final solo sets from all of the performers, including Freitas’s eerily faithful rendition of Prince’s “Darling Nikki,” and Bengolea’s cover of Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights,” both of which undoubtedly steal the stage.
The most unassuming, Harrell is nonetheless the most captivating of the four. He never changes clothes like the others, remaining in a black sweatshirt and corduroy khakis throughout the evening (with the exception of a few head accessories and makeup). In emphasizing the individuality of each performer, Harrell fosters a truly collaborative environment where identities subsume one another all while maintaining their own autonomy. Themes of gender, sexuality, and race are played out on the stage in a theatrical but unpretentious matter. In fact, the entire front row is dedicated to the cast’s wardrobe, an open public dressing room where identities are no longer magically transformed backstage. Nothing is hidden and nothing is off limits. Instead, all four performers engage in a continuous process of scavenging, undressing, waiting, changing, undoing, and redoing. We watch wide-eyed as Harrell and his collaborators embrace this process and all of its uncertainty, with grace and vogue.
Christine Hou is a poet and arts writer living in Brooklyn.