Dance Review: Trajal Harrell — Dragging the Greeks

Twenty Looks has put a lot under its belt since Trajal Harrell began his research. It’s bigger now, but I’m not sure it’s any more profound.

Antigone Sr./Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church (L) by Trajal Harrell. Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, MA, March 25 and 26.

A scene from "Twenty Looks ..." Photo: courtesy of the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston

A scene from “Twenty Looks …” Photo: courtesy of the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston,

By Marcia B. Siegel

Yes, Antigone Sr./Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church (L) is the title of Trajal Harrell’s 2012 installment of his long-running runway show. It is bigger and more ambitious in concept than his other efforts that we’ve seen. The idea of this extended performance piece is to put together the Harlem drag balls of the 1980s and the experimental dance of the 1960s, which, according to dance legend, took place at New York’s Judson Church.

Harrell brought the (S) version to Boston in 2010. I thought at the time the (S) meant Solo, which it was. But now, according to Harrell’s pre-performance announcement Friday night, it seems all Twenty Looks chapters are assigned women’s dress sizes. The (L) version could mean Large—or Long. It lasted 2 hours and 15 minutes without an intermission. Like the other parts, it combined voguing, a sort of fashion-show-display dance, with the sparse production values and deliberate neutrality of the early postmodern dancers.

Collage is the most common practice of 21st century dance. The Judson dancers junked the concept of unity in choreography, theme, and performance, anticipating today’s works that feature physicality and theatrical staging but don’t have choreographic throughlines. The mashup is the contemporary equivalent of composition. The loaded reference is enough to imply deep meaning. Harrell’s collages encompass not just music and dancing but transgressive language and gender confusions. The audience at the ICA seemed to get it.

Photo: Courtesy of the Institute of Contemporary Art.

A scene from “Twenty Looks …” Photo: Courtesy of the Institute of Contemporary Art.

Twenty Looks has put a lot under its belt since Harrell began his research. It’s undergone European and North and South American tours, adjustments of casting and production elements, and the accumulation of a lot of professorial commentary. It’s bigger now, but I’m not sure it’s any more profound.

The dancing Friday night began with solos by each of the dancers, Samuel Lance, Thibault Lac, Stephen Thompson, and Ondrej Vidlar. On three square white platforms they appear, each with his own special spotlight. Vidlar goes first, in a black suit and white T-shirt, and each man in follows him in succession. Vidlar’s dance is energetic, multi-directional. He seems to be thrusting one part of his body after another into space, pulling the rest with it. At times he could be trying to shrug out of the sleeve of his jacket, rendering his shoulders bare like a stripper. Each man in turn could be improvising on Vidlar’s dance, and each one does it differently.

Out of the surrounding darkness, a bent-over figure, accompanying itself with a small bell or shell that makes a light, tinkling sound, threads its way among the dancers and up into the audience. I thought of this as a figure of Fate, but like everyone else in the performance, it had other identities.

The Fate figure made its way around the audience and took a seat. After the last dancer had finished his solo and three of them were dancing at once, a voice from the audience (Harrell’s, amplified) commanded them to STOP THE SHOW. He went on to chant in a loud but unnatural voice. I could only grasp a few words, but they portended dire things.

When the lights came up again, two people were seated on another platform, Harrell and Lac, singing and chanting a long litany of pairs. Some were famous lovers, some were other famous matchups: “We are . . . Yoko and John. Mumbai and Bombay. John Cage and Merce Cunningham. Peanut butter and jelly.” Harrell could modulate his voice from a strident bellow to a falsetto croon to a whisper. I couldn’t tell when it was Harrell I was listening to, or Lac. Their miked voices were layered into recorded music so you couldn’t tell if you were hearing them or the recorded artists. Accompanied by this suggestion of a Greek chorus, the dancers appeared in toga-like costumes and posed like famous statues.

Some sort of story was being told, in jumbled clots. Maybe it was the story of Antigone, who was executed after she insisted on burying one of her twin brothers who’d been killed in a coup attempt. A person loudly introduced as The King appeared and paraded along a runway that was laid out on the floor, wearing a suit jacket and with his head wrapped in an outsize turban. Then the other men paraded out in minimal but outlandish costumes while the story continued, in fragments. I could make out a name once in a while — Creon, the King; Haemon, Antigone’s fiancé, who also perished in Sophocles’s bloody telling.

Photo: Lars Persson

A scene from “Twenty Looks …” Photo: Lars Persson.

The parade of bizarre characters became a fashion show, with the names of designers applied to some of the models, and the models becoming campier. “Hermès” was a man wearing two large silk scarves pinned together and briefs underneath. Most of the models adopted roles matching their attire: one character wore spike heels and stalked forward like a wading bird; another plodded in golden wedgies. There was one who looked like a Martha Graham heroine from her Greek cycle, Clytemnestra perhaps. There were sarongs in different sizes, and slinky “feminine” walks to match.

One or two of these designs were made of the same beach towel. I realized that they were all artfully improvised, put together from remnants and pieces of clothing worn upside down, inside out, twisted or layered together.

As Friday evening’s performance was beginning, Harrell spoke to the audience, without a microphone, giving explanations and excuses — the lighting designer hadn’t been able to come, the scenery wasn’t exactly as it was supposed to be, but the show would go on anyway. And advising the audience to “pace yourself.” He bracketed this, hours later, coercing the audience by repeatedly demanding “ARE YOU READY?” as the dancers gyrated more orgiastically than ever. The audience responded by working itself up to a shouting, clapping ovation, bouncing in its seats.

But this wasn’t the end. The frenzy was cut off by a return of quieter music that could have come from a movie sound track, and a coda of dancing in such dim light that you could almost imagine the dancers as twins. Harrell returned in his Fate costume and seemed to be starting another story. Slowly they all left the space, but the disco beat continued blaring as the audience cheered.

Internationally known writer, lecturer, and teacher Marcia B. Siegel covered dance for 16 years at The Boston Phoenix. She is a contributing editor for The Hudson Review. The fourth collection of Siegel’s reviews and essays, Mirrors and Scrims—The Life and Afterlife of Ballet, won the 2010 Selma Jeanne Cohen prize from the American Society for Aesthetics. Her other books include studies of Twyla Tharp, Doris Humphrey, and American choreography. From 1983 to 1996, Siegel was a member of the resident faculty of the Department of Performance Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.

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