Trajal Harrell: Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at Judson Church
Co-presented by The Kitchen and The French Institute Alliance Française as part of the Crossing the Line Festival, September 14 – 20, 2014.
What would have happened in 1963 if someone from the voguing ballroom scene in Harlem had come downtown to perform alongside the early postmoderns at Judson Church? This is how Harrell situates his series at the start of every performance, explaining that his intention is to create not a historical fiction, but a realm of possibility. The first time the series has been presented in the U.S. in the order it was created, Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning brings with it a touring history of approximately 108 presentations, mostly international, over the period of 2009 – 14. The entirety of each cast, aside from Harrell, is based outside of the U.S.
Throughout the six evenings of the run at The Kitchen, I wondered about the impact of Harrell’s explicit framing. From the way that Harrell prefaced each show to the handouts he distributed (providing brief historical background regarding Judson and voguing, as well as theoretical texts focused on spectatorship and appropriation), it would seem that these works were largely directed towards an audience unfamiliar with these contexts. It is impossible to know the degree to which this framing was an artistic choice to assert more control over the audience’s experience, or a response to pressure by funders, producers, and venues to clearly present material that could be mystifying or inaccessible.
So how did it feel to watch it in New York—the historical site of both Judson and the ball scene in Harlem? How did it feel to watch it in the U.S., with its particular history of racial stratification? And what does Antigone, a tragedy centered around a strong oppositional figure whose loyalty to her brother leads her to violate civic law, have to do with all this? What does it mean to watch Twenty Looks now—as a restaging, rather than a new work? Viewing the entire series in such a condensed period of time, I began to discern Harrell’s navigation of pathos and theatricality, of sentimentality and camp. Harrell’s presence onstage remained fairly consistent yet resisted claims of authenticity. As he points out in Antigone Sr., “Realness is when you try to be something you’re not.” It is this trying on of styles that distinguishes Harrell’s work. Not many people showed up for all the shows—it’s a lot to ask, after all. Once the run had come to a close, I found myself in the same room as Harrell, who came right up to me and asked curiously, “Who are you?” And so I learned that I, too, was being read all along.
I sit on the stage with the other spectators. Under my left thigh is a set of readings Harrell has handed out (including a photocopy of the front and back cover of Darby English’s How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness and Peggy Phelan’s essay on Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning). He leaves us for a while, then reappears with a tray of lights. Backstage outfit changes yield a brightly colored apron and later a tiger suit. The music shifts from classical to disco to contemporary jazz. He dances in the dark, a twisting that starts in the wrists and travels down to the waist, his face contorting, my eyes straining to adjust. The lights flare on; all of sudden seeing is painful. The show ends with a signal.
In the upstairs gallery space, bland electronica music and white walls place us in a non-specific environment. Among a cluster of metal folding chairs draped with clothes, Harrell uses a lined notepad to flip through numbers 1-20 of the Twenty Looks. He moves slowly and appears uncomfortable at first. He is—as are we—clearly illuminated in the harsh bright light. A deft adjustment of an apron moves us from “Serving” to “Superhero.” In the end, Harrell cries, both hands holding up a black piece of fabric. The lights go down and he takes a while to shift into the role of the performer taking a bow, signaling that this moment is not mere camp. There is a rubbery stubbornness to this piece, a net of tension that is occasionally broken up by humor.
(M)imosa (co-created with Cecilia Bengolea, François Chaignaud, and Marlene Monteiro Freitas)
Nothing medium here, despite the M in the title. Freitas starts off the show with a masculine-inflected stroll back and forth across the front of the stage. Her performance of seduction unravels as she pushes herself to extremes, evoking vaudeville, minstrelsy, forced exhibitionism. A two-and-a-half hour carnival ensues. Cabaret, karaoke, dance club, drag show. Latex, wigs, black lights. Music overload, mash-ups. Who is the real Mimosa? What is autobiography and what fiction? The performers refer to the dressing rooms of The Kitchen, to the length of the show—wonder if we’ll have to use the bathroom. Sometimes we think we are being addressed rhetorically, but then the performers refuse to continue until we answer them. We are climbed over and sweated on, asked to pass makeup bags and zip dresses. There is no backstage. The performers walk around in bathrobes and casually walk along the front of the stage, treating it as an informal runway.
Disclosure and discomposure make up the fabric of (M)imosa. Coming-of-age stories proliferate, and the performers offer the audience movement material supposedly from their personal archives. Did Harrell’s solo really originate in Zagreb? Was Freitas truly obsessed with purple as a child? Musical mash-ups abound, such as when Harrell sings Diana Ross’s “Do you know where you’re going to?” wearing a short wig and a shawl around his shoulders, and Chaignaud sings a French song in falsetto. Freitas plays an imaginary piano with a raw egg in her mouth while Bengolea (whose role is the least dynamic) cavorts around reciting rap lyrics in a deadpan French accent; at the moment when Freitas finally spits out the broken egg, Bengolea happens to be saying: “get so frustrated—” Chance operations are put into play when each performer draws a number to determine the order of their finales. Without giving more away, I’ll just say that if Prince ever saw Freitas doing Prince, he just might give up. The anarchic virtuosity and excess of M(imosa), surely a result of Harrell’s collaboration with three distinctive dancer-choreographers, make it the high point of the series for me.
(+/++) Antigone Jr.
The proposition, which I have memorized by this point, is extended this time to include an explanation of ++. Harrell explains that it was made in response to the demands of presenters, who generally preferred evening-length work. Both performers (Harrell and Thibault Lac) have seats staked out in the audience. The two take turns walking down a makeshift catwalk: confident, sexy, devoid of affect. The timing is fairly regular until Lac starts fumbling in his seat. Lac dashes off, and Harrell explains that a costume is missing, apologizing multiple times to the audience. We sit there in awkward silence until Harrell announces that they will start over. Something entirely new begins.
If the question of size M was “Who is the real Mimosa?” the questions of + might be: “Who is the real Trajal?” or “Where is the real performance?” At one point, Harrell bursts out in a theatrical litany: “I am Trajal!” he proclaims, pronouncing his name in several accents. “You made me New York, you made me—” he continues, “David Velasco, Alastair Macaulay!” calling out the critics in the room. + ends and moves into ++, which amounts to a seated sing-along by Harrell and Lac, featuring songs from the other shows in the series. ++ feels like a bit of a symbolic “fuck you” to both the economic structures of the dance world and the power of representation given to critics. Ultimately, it feels as if the audience is being held hostage, a sacrifice to the choreographer’s critique. ++ is metaperformance, is commentary, is measured time.
(L) Antigone Sr.
A lone palm tree made from construction paper occupies a corner of the stage. Through a gape in the curtain, a clothing rack is visible—throughout the performance we see hands grabbing garments off the rack. Here we have the largest cast of the series: five performers including Thibault Lac, Rob Fordeyn, Ondrej Vidlar, Stephen Thompson, and Harrell himself. A series of solos on white squares (“islands”) ensues. Fordeyn is particularly striking as he, wearing socks, dances a wild flinging sequence that never loses control. The dancers appear through a slit in curtain, replacing each other in what feels like a mounting competition, until suddenly Harrell calls out: “Stop the show!” and proceeds to recite a text via microphone from within the darkened house. Later, a vocal duet between he and Lac: “We are…” in which various duos are invoked, ranging from pop divas, to 19th century novels to, hilariously, “tits.”
The worlds of Greek tragedy, fashion, and the ball scene are brought together under the rubric of the “House of Thebes,” culminating in a fashion show complete with Harrel and Fordeyn’s commentary. (Fordeyn can’t compete with Harrell’s quick wit—but I don’t think he’s meant to.) The three other performers emerge dressed in a truly impressive series of looks. All ensembles are crafted from the same set of clothes and accessories, impressively parodying couture fashion and the working-with-what-you’ve-got-ness of ball culture. The visibility of the clothing rack hearkens back to the showing-the-seams nature of Judson. Thompson stands out for his physical humor.
The story of Antigone feels largely tangential, or at least interests me less than everything else. At the moment that Lac pronounces “Antigone is dead,” a web of blue strings falls to the floor. Harrell begins to shudder, appearing to be plagued by spirits—until abruptly dropping the act and announcing with full command and poise: “Next category is ‘Mother of the House.’” Towards the end of the show, in an effort to elicit audience response, Harrell recycles a speech from (M)imosa, telling the audience, “You’re on my team!” The only moment that I feel a flicker of sincerity is when Harrell says, “Can you be here with me?” But overall, his MC’ing feels a little forced. We stand, cheer, throw flowers, someone even tosses his hat onstage, but the feeling of being coached keeps me from feeling like I could undergo any real transformation.
Later, there is a brief moment where the performers face each other in a circle towards the back of the stage. The ritualized nature of their positions opens up a mystical space, one more in keeping with the rites of ancient Greece. When the stage goes dark towards the end of the show, our eyes slowly adjust to see the figure of Fordeyn bearing a headdress, nearly lost in countless layers of fabric, arms outstretched. Is he Prince Polyneices come back from the dead? The performance closes with a set of solos danced on the white islands. The lights gradually come up on each dancer in a beautiful mirroring of the beginning of the piece, where the solos emerged out of ego and competition. Now, in the dim glow, each dancer is ghost and trace. Finally, the lights stay out and we are in the pitch black together for just a moment.
M2M (Made to Measure)
The gallery is rearranged to allow for a long, shallow stage. In what feels like a very literal demonstration of the reversed proposition of this piece (Judson comes uptown to Harlem), Lac delivers Harrell’s proposition. The three performers (Harrell, Lac, and Fordeyn) wear simple, black tunics. Fordeyn whispers unendingly into a microphone, “Don’t stop, don’t—” while Harrell performs a church affect, moaning phrases from “Good morning, Heartache,” trembling, sobbing, clutching. Lac is Harrell’s echo, able to emote grief and yet the figure of innocence. After some time has gone by, I’m amused to notice that Harrell has “fallen asleep” in his chair. Indeed, this section seems to go on interminably, Fordeyn’s voice turning into an irritating buzz.
And then suddenly, a turn. The lights dim, and it’s time to walk. Fordeyn is sly and poised on his toes, Harrell all bounce and flounce, and Lac laconic model meets club kid. The energy mounts. The three performers encourage each other and take turns showing off. Lac’s solo features a mixture of classic hip-hop moves, resulting in a spectacle both virtuosic and comical in its obvious cultural appropriation. The glimpses of his patterned Uniqlo boxers only add to the incongruous nature of what we’re looking at. The trio gets more and more worked up: voguing, twirling, leaping. Harrell’s superhero returns; with one fist in the air, he charges across the stage. This is the sort of abandon I’ve been waiting for: the three chant, “Don’t think, just werk.”
For the final movement of the piece, the three performers return to their seats and pick up their microphones. Lac murmurs, “Are you on fire?” Harrell begins to sing a new song, with all the hyperbolic intensity of the truly broken-hearted. I look around to see if anyone else recognizes the Indigo Girls—but if that is the case, not one face betrays it. What fully takes hold of me in the moment is the elusiveness and play of code-switching. In Twenty Looks, Harrell offers an assemblage of images that collapse time periods, places, identities, and lineages. It is no coincidence that the most memorable of them happen in the dark.