Photo: Casper Hedberg for the NYTimes

Photo: Casper Hedberg for the NYTimes


I first saw Trajal Harrell’s TWENTY LOOKS OR PARIS IS BURNING AT THE JUDSON CHURCH: ANTIGONE SR at New York Live Arts two years ago. I remember feelings of extreme frustration mixed with feelings of extreme admiration, rapture, and wonder. The piece balances lengthy periods of confusing, somewhat muddled performance passages with sequences of dancing that are downright transcendent. Revisiting this piece at the Kitchen this past October, I feel like I was able to see the work more clearly. Perhaps as the piece has been touring for the past two years, it has gained a sharper focus and stronger sense of purpose.

Harrell works under the supposition of what might have occurred should the Judson Church Dance movement and the tradition of voguing balls collided. Trajal’s interest in these two cultural and artistic movements were amplified when he discovered the genesis of both occured in 1960’s New York City. In abstraction, the Judson movement radically refused current trends in dance performance, rejecting the confines of technique, reframing assumed use of space in live performance, and eliminating ideas of spectacle and glamour. What is generally referred to as the “post-modern” dance movement began to take root at the Judson Church in Greenwich Village through the pioneering work of Trisha Brown, Steve Paxton, and Yvonne Rainer, among others.

Meanwhile, voguing emerged in Harlem as a social dance counterculture developed through celebratory balls rooted in identity, necessity, defiance, and aspiration. Primarily created by the African-American and Latino Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender community, this dance phenomenon derived from a runway competition or ball in which competing walkers strike a series of poses or positions inspired by the glamourous fashion models that appeared on the cover of Vogue magazine. Voguing competitors aspire to total “realness”: to pass believably as something one is not. Constructs of gender, race, and economic class are rendered as mere illusions of physical representation and gesture. Comprised of a series of complex categories (Butch Queen, Femme Queen, European Runway) competitors are judged on the coherence of their “realness” through walking, clothing, hair, makeup, and posing. Voguing gained popular recognition with the release of the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning by Jennie Livingston and the hit 1990 Madonna single, Vogue.

Trajal’s interest in these two artistic movements presents a series of interesting and provocative possibilities regarding ideas of performance and artifice. The post-modern Judsons sought a certain “authenticity” through refusing performance artifice, while in the voguing balls “realness” is intricately performed through recognized social references. Inspired by the Rem Koolhaas book, S,M,L,XL, Harrell’s exploration exists as a series: XS, S, (M)imosa, JR (Antigone JR), PLUS (Antigone JR ++) L (Antigone Sr) and M2M (Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem). ANTIGONE SR is the penultimate episode of the group and adds the Greek tragedy of Antigone into the mix of Judson and vogue. PARIS IS BURNING AT THE JUDSON CHURCH is an adventure in conceptual collision, an “impossible dialogue” of sorts, between two unique and very specific dance cultures that revolve around ideas of authenticity and illusion.

I admire the imaginative framework of this work. Employing the magic of “what if” liberates and unleashes a vast reservoir of potential for Trajal and his collaborators. By proposing questions or suggesting alternatives in this performance work, Trajal and Co have given themselves and the audience permission to make discoveries rather than arrive at a reductive fixed fusion or solution to the creative equation at hand. This is not a Judson Vogue Ball, or a Vogued Judson recreation. Harrell writes: I am most interested in how the imagination can re-think the “omissions” of history. In this way, performance can be a way in which we collectively reimagine the impossibilities of history and thus make room for new possibilities in the world we make today.  (

ANTIGONE SR is a conceptually creative outpouring that struts, shouts, shrieks, and sobs with power. Erik Faltmo’s setting of intersecting grey marley “runways” is outlined in thin neon pink and blue tape. There are three raised white squares in the downstage area that are often lit in such a way that they appear to glow. To the left, in the middle of the space, is a very low platform covered in silver fabric. It is at once laissez faire and theatrical, and as a matter of fact, so is the entire piece. Jan Maertens skillful work provides stunning lighting effects. On more than one occasion, he blinds the audience with darkness and then gradually reveals and conceals ghostly, writhing creatures that seem to materialize in a haze. They are there, but not there…or are they? He seduces our eyes into playing tricks on us and we become participants in the illusions before us.

Trajal is joined onstage by four beautiful creatures, each unique and appealing in their own way. Rob Fordeyn’s sinewy, serpentine body spellbinds. Thibault Lac is lush and vulnerable. Stephen Thompson brings a studied, facile, and knowing ease to many of his humorous passages. Ondrej Vidlar grounds the group with sensual flair. Working as a unit, these men have a unique, rebellious, and self-aware power. At one point Trajal takes the mic as an MC who schools the crowd at a voguing ball. Voguing references of “House”, “Legendary Face”, and “Iconogia” illuminate various themes of Greek tragedy. Thibault and Trajal intone a delightful series of partnerships: “We are…Venus and Serena…..Cage and Cunningham….”  (and so forth) before arriving at Antigone and Ismene of the Greek play.

We are presented with various categories of runway competition in which each man walks out in an ensemble fashioned from the same costume pieces worn in earlier in the evening. A pair of acid wash jeans, a leather trench coat, an afghan blanket, a men’s blazer, and such are remixed, repurposed, and recycled to brilliant and sensational effect. Walking in imaginary high heels and fantastically imagined ensembles, the men compete for “realness” in various categories. “Mother of the House” is humorously subversive and deserves to be expanded into an evening of it’s own. Conceptually layering the post-modern ideas of deconstruction and repurposing over the conceit of the voguing runway results in a sublime release of theatrical freedom and power, and is a joy to behold. Here we see the reimaging of history and new possibilities Harrell alludes to in his artist statement, and the result is electrifying. The cultural, theoretical, historical, artistic, and academic volume of Mr. Harrell’s vision is indeed intense and thrilling. The house of Harrell is alive and well.

Photo: Marta Gornicka

Photo: Marta Gornicka

The final installment of Trajal’s cannon of re/de/contrucstion, M2M JUDSON CHURCH IS RINGING IN HARLEM was presented the following evening. This piece is a much smaller, but equally complex endeavor. It is the final installment to this creative cannon. Less theatrical, but still confrontational and perplexing, this piece finds Mr. Harrell, Mr. Lac, and Mr. Fordeyn seated on three chairs. It has a calmer, more meditative stance than ANTIGONE SR. The three men recite snippets from song lyrics over the microphones, ending with repeated refrains of “Don’t Stop” and “Mama Said”. In this first section Fordeyn and Luc remain distanced and ritualized while Harrell’s face contorts and twists and his body shakes as if he is working through some personal psychodrama. Wearing similar black gauzy shifts by ComplexGeometries, the relative stillness allows one to contemplate the men’s physical similarities and differences. Lac and Fordeyn are long and lean of neck, legs and fingers. Harrell is smaller and shorter in this respect. Harrell is black. Lac and Fordeyn are not. The stark differences between Mr. Harrell and his collaborators highlighted ideas of difference and accord. At times Harrell appears to be in a completely different performance mode than Lac and Fordeyn. Long pauses and a sense of implosion slowly build into a crescendo of swirling movement and ecstatic release. “Conceptual dance is ova!” Harrell shouts into the mic as Fordeyn turns it out with sinuous flair. A refrain of “work!” echoes from the men. Things slow down and Lac asks repeatedly “are you on fire?” Trajal and company certainly are, and Paris is Burning at the Judson Church, which is Ringing in Harlem in case you didn’t know.

For more on Trajal Harrell, see a previous interview I posted last week.



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