Review: Trajal Harrell: Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church The Kitchen
On 16, Nov 2014 | In Uncategorized | By marywp
Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church is a performance in eight parts, or “sizes” presented over the course of a week at the Kitchen. Each unique event explores Harrell’s question, “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?” The series takes its title in part from the 1990 Jennie Livingston documentary, Paris is Burning which was largely responsible for introducing to a general audience the underground Vouging ball culture of working class gay black and latinos in Harlem in the 1970s and 80s. The contrast between the extravagant culture of fashion and celebrity with the elimination of spectacle from performance of the Judson Dance Theatre over the same time period a few miles downtown is Harrell’s unchartered field to explore.
The series beings with a brief performance, a introduction of sorts, XS. The intimate performance, limited to an audience of only 25 begins upon entering the theatre. Harrell introduces himself and shakes the hand of each viewer. Intimacy is established at the outset as Harell introduces himself and shakes the hand of each of the twenty five visitors allowed to view the performance at any one time. He invites his audience to take their seats on the black box theatre floor, encouraging them to be comfortable, to relax, to lie down. This simple instruction, is itself an homage to the evaporation of the proscenium stage, a core aspect to the work of the early postmodern dancers from which Harrell draws his inspiration. Once inside the theatre it is difficult to determine a moment at which the performance actually begins, as Harrell takes a seat on the floor near the small group and provides some background on the work. He also provides the audience with a cue, “when I make this sign, the performance is over.” Harrell makes a slated ‘T’ with his arms.
After explaining the thesis behind the work, “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” Harrell disappears behind a black curtain, and retrieves prepared reading packets containing a statement and selected reference texts as background. Integrating the didactic into the performance itself, Harrell encourages his audience to “take their time, to read.” Reading on the floor of the stage shared with the sole performer allow him to retreat from the gaze, to literally disappear behind the curtain without being missed. Filing the void of performance with text for which the view to actively engage displaces the artist with the materials of his work, allowing a more close, interpersonal connection when he re-appears , this time dressed in a red kimono carrying 4 red lights. As Harrell silently places the lights on the floor, a connection has been established.
As a study in intimacy, Harrell draws attention to the idea of ocularity, the idea of looking and being looked at. Harrell confesses to his nervousness of being watched, the original performances of XS, done for an audience of 50 was admittedly “disastrous”– 50 people equal 100 eyes. Even with the small group, one could feel Harrell’s nerves, even insecurity during some moments in the performance, one feels that he knows no more about the work’s eventual outcome than the audience. Yvonne Rainer, who articulated her conflicted feelings about being watched as a performer, developed a style in which she avoided eye contact with her audience, seeking to become an object in space rather than engaging with an emotional relationship with those watching her. The Vogue performers sought out the gaze of others, relying on a working-class Warholian celebrity worship. Harlem ball performances mimicked fashion runways in a quest for empowerment through visibly.
While constantly engaging with these disparate histories, the work refrains from falling into a revisionist history of dance in 1960s New York; Harrell instead applies a creativity, drawing on elements from both the expressionistic, pop enthused performance of Harlem vouging and the pedestrian movement of early postmodern dance as performed at Judson Church. The result could not have been performed by either set of dancers, instead Harrell muses on these differences and similarities. In providing reading for his audience, the performance becomes, as in reading, a personal dialogue with an existing history.
Harell’s series of costume changes (three in 30 minute performance) prevents the formation of a single character, or individual. Seeking visibility while simultaneously keeping the his individuality in flux, Harell dances against the modest red lights, his choreography at once expressionistic and quotidian. As a song comes to an end, Harrel, makes the ‘T’ formation with his arms–the performance is over. As a model on a catwalk, Harrell turns and walks and walks slowly back, disappearing behind the curtain, when he disappears and the theatre is silent the performance continues. “Go home and read it” Harell encouraged his audience upon handing out his printed matter. “That too is part of the piece.”