Now, we’re told, Trajal Harrell has been researching Butoh dance and hoochy coochy dance, hooking them up with the precursors of modern dance and slathering on generous amounts of gender theory.
Trajal Harrell’s Caen Amour at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, MA, September 21 and 22.
By Marcia B. Siegel
Trajal Harrell’s work is finely crafted even when it looks most offhand. He returned to the ICA last week with Caen Amour (2016), a mashup piece based on his Paris is Burning series, with a whole lot of new input. Now, we’re told, he’s been researching Butoh dance and hoochy coochy dance, hooking them up with the precursors of modern dance, especially Loie Fuller, and slathering on generous amounts of gender theory.
Friday night’s performance began — well, you can’t say exactly when it began, since basically all public behavior is a performance. First came a useful introductory speech by John Andress, the ICA’s new director of performing arts. Useful because we didn’t receive programs until the show ended. After the talk, the audience waited several minutes in the lobby, during which we could observe each other’s performance. We were allowed upstairs and, entering the theater, found half the usual stage space occupied with pillows for the audience to sit on. The other half held a rickety-looking set piece, painted blue, with three large cutout holes of different sizes. Once there, we were directed to walk around the rudimentary set, so we could see “backstage” before the show began. The back of the set had empty wood shelves painted white and looked like a kitchen in a vacant house.
As the stream of civilians shuffled around the set, Trajal Harrell, dressed in a sea-green silk shirt with a panel of tan silk sewn onto the front, ambled from foot to foot in time to some music that was playing. He interrupted his dance to greet people he knew. Then, people claimed the pillows and filled most of the conventional seats in the theater.
Harrell was continuing his dance, with recorded guitar music and a singer, possibly Brazilian. Harrell seemed to be answering an internal voice. He sank deeper into his steps, bending over them, smiling to himself, then staggering. The song ended and another one began: a girl singing something like “This is all I want to be.” As Harrell gestured with hands in front of his face, you could see his left hand trembling. He might have been sad about something. While this was going on, stagehands were carrying things into the space, large bundles and baskets of stuff, and putting them in the backstage space. He ignored them.
I didn’t go back there again, but the helpers must have been setting out costumes and props for the rest of the show. I could see their action reflected in the theater’s window wall behind them. Harrell was now jutting his hips out as he stepped and throwing his upper body around like a model on a runway or a particularly brazen stripper. He was interrupted by a woman in the floor section of the audience who stood up to make an announcement in a high-pitched voice. Was she just a disruptive malcontent? She sounded self-conscious at first, but later got quite assured. I decided right away she was a “plant.” She climbed over the pillow-crowd that surrounded her and walked to the perimeter. She started on something like the usual welcome speech about the exits and turning off your phone. When we saw her wearing a particular T-shirt (she held it up to demonstrate), it would be time to get up and inspect backstage. There were many rules about this, which she delivered later. While she held forth, Harrell was passing out leaflets to the audience. The handout explained what cooch dance was and how we were to interpret its political significance.
Characters made their appearance from the biggest archway in the setpiece. First, a craggy man in T-shirt and shorts, squatting with his arms winged out. As he bobbed up and down, making monster faces, he over-rotated his arms, flexed his legs and feet. He tottered away and an imposing presence emerged, entirely swathed in printed silks so you couldn’t see its face or hands. The squatting man, I later decided, was Thibault Lac; the anonymous silken presence Ondrej Vidlar. After the instructress finished lecturing about the rules, the two men resumed their parade, changing costumes in the backstage dressing room after every appearance. With each entry they wore a different “costume.” These weren’t really costumes, but mostly pieces of cloth or clothing that they held up against themselves, adjusting whatever they had on underneath to conceal or reveal their bodies.
Each entry came with a different set of dance moves. Either the moves or some bit of costume would suggest another dance inspired by history’s icons and low culture. The choreography didn’t come close to the dance forms referenced. Thibault Lac teetered on high heels with a model’s walk. He twirled a pink ribbon. One of the men, I forget which, rippled an arm with a painted snake curled around it. It reminded me of Ruth St. Denis’s Yogi. Some of the characters carried large metal bowls, suggesting the Oriental tokens that Miss Ruth acquired on her tours of Europe and the Far East and later used in Denishawn’s dance dramas.
A third dancer, Perle Palombe, made her first appearance behind a screen as a shadow in a smaller archway. You couldn’t really tell what the shadow was, but later a very thin woman danced out of the entrance wearing only some beads. She didn’t do a peep-show come-on, but as she pranced and flounced, she made me think there were more ways to titillate than the stripper’s stereotyped routine. But then, all three men also projected a certain sex appeal, not for the sexy images we were meant to recall, but for the way they themselves moved.
Harrell, who had sat in the audience for much of the show, now got up and, holding a large red cloth, strode through the audience and around to the back. He reappeared holding a ruffled pink dress in front of him. He danced with the dress, maybe romancing it in imagination. Shadowy characters moved around just behind the scene. A piano played some jazz chords accompanied by a violin. Lac and Vidlar appeared with pieces of black cloth draped around them. Off at the side, Harrell was leaning against the entrance arch. He was bending over the pink dress and he appeared to be weeping.
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.
Mary Paula Hunter says
Thank you for such a clear, concise description. Reminds me of Deborah Jowitt’s reviews but more neutral in tone which I appreciate.
Mary Paula Hunter
Farrell Dyde says
Marcia: Thanks for the entrée into a strange dance world. You have been a great guide and interpreter for me for many years. I greatly admire your point of view and writing style – having read most of your books more than once over the years. I am so glad that you are still writing and have found a place to do so (Deborah Jowitt directed me to this blog). Onward! – Farrell Dyde
Bill Marx says
Thanks so much. The Arts Fuse is proud to be a place to find Marcia’s writing. Just a note that The Arts Fuse is a magazine — we have over 60 writings contributing reviews, interviews, features, etc. The material is edited … by me.