“What would have happened in 1963 if someone from the voguing ball scene in Harlem had come downtown to perform alongside the early postmoderns at Judson Church?” This is the guiding proposition of The Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (2008-2013), a seven-part, seminal body of work by New York City-based choreographer Trajal Harrell. The piece is a response to the invisible history of 1960s voguing in Harlem that was overshadowed by the postmodern Judson school. The title, Twenty Looks, refers to both the “looks” of voguing—and its documentation in the revolutionary film Paris is Burning (1990)—and the conflation of this history with that of the downtown Judson dance scene.
From September 14 to 20 at The Kitchen, Harrell presented his seven performances in succession for the first time in the U.S. In his introduction to Antigone Sr. (the second longest in the series), Harrell explained that the work was not intended to be a historical fiction or some kind of fusion of voguing and postmodern dance, but rather that the forms of movement tease each other and coexist in this space for this moment, which could not have happened in the past. Twenty Looks imagines an encounter between the Judson experimentalists, who pared down theatricality to emphasize ordinary movement, and Harlem voguers, who suggested, with their exhibitionist balls, that authenticity is itself a theatrical notion.
For Antigone Sr., which I had the good fortune of seeing while in New York last weekend, The Kitchen’s black box theater was outfitted with minimal props and staging that included several intersecting walkways that resembled a runway (and perhaps a Greek procession route), a mattress placed directly on the floor, and three white square stages on which the dancers performed. On these catwalk runways, Harrell and his four male dancers explored the spectrum of motion from frenzied flailing to precise runway striding. The sonic experience ranged from house DJ mixes to singalongs to absolute silence. And dance was equally balanced by narration in the form of theoretical musings, partial recountings of the myth of Antigone, snarky outbursts, and repetitive commands.
Antigone Sr. was structured around reinscribing the relationship between audience and performers. The nearly three-hour-long (sans intermission), highly ambitious staging was introduced by the artist, who explained that the performance is “a Greek tragedy… we have to go all the way.” From there the audience was asked to stand and pledge, with hand over heart, to the house anthem of Britney Spears’ Hit Me Baby One More Time, which was recited as prose by one of Harrell’s four dance collaborators, Thibault Lac, a statuesque and regal dancer. This set the participatory tone for the rest of the evening. We were the imagined spectators of this constructed history; we were creating, adapting, and reassigning new relations between the dancers and ourselves.
Harrell then addressed the crowd, provoking us to define the term “realness.” In a recent interview with The Kitchen’s chief curator, Tim Griffin, Harrell explained that he was exploring authenticity, and how aspects of non-dominant cultures migrate into other more dominant cultural spaces. Reflecting on appropriation across time and art forms (e.g., Jazz into Rock ‘n’ Roll), Harrell shaped his practice around the idea of how to take advantage of and restructure this migration. The shifting of forms, replacement of ideas, and multiplicity of products got him thinking about David Hammons’ iconic Bliz-aard Ball Sale (1983), in which he sold different-sized snowballs on the streets of New York. This led Harrell to create and name the Twenty Looks series by various sizes: (XS), (S), (M)imosa, (jr) Antigone Jr., (Plus) Antigone Jr. ++, (L) Antigone Sr., and (M2M Made-to-Measure) Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem—each standalone performance successively longer and more elaborate in terms of costuming, choreography, music, and lighting.
Throughout Antigone Sr. Harrell set up a number of diametrics—a key trope in this dualistic performance: comedy and tragedy, excess and minimalism, and authenticity and appropriation. In one scene on the bed, Harrell and Lac were seated next to each other and embodying duality in their monochromatic, draped garb—one in grey and one in black. They took turns stating, in monotone voices: “We are… Beyoncé and Solange. We are… William and Henry. We are… Mary Kate and Ashley.” The performers listed countless pairs and opposites—some funny and others breaking with the binary pattern: “We are… Deleuze and Guattari. We are… unhappy.”
In another bed scene, we were told the fateful myth (read: soap opera) of Antigone, recounted with immediacy in a first-person narrative. We learned that Antigone was unwittingly born of the incestuous union of Oedipus and his mother. After Oedipus learned of this tragedy, he blinded and exiled himself from Thebes. Both brothers of Antigone quarreled over the rule of the city, and were killed; the younger was condemned a traitor, to be left unburied. Convinced of the injustice of the command, Antigone buried her brother in secret, and for this, was executed.
The details of this myth were not acted out in this performance, but rather, overlapping forms, migration of shape, and the inevitability of death were themes throughout Harrell’s performance. The lyrics and statements, “When I die,” “murder she wrote,” and “I am safe from life, I’m already dead” indicate such preoccupations. As Harrell is singing, Lac crawls through the audience onto our chairs, tying blue thread from Harrell’s hand to those of individuals in the crowd. The thread is better associated with the myth of Ariadne than that of Antigone, but the notions of interconnectedness and impermanence ran strong, and the thread was a stunning yet minimal visual prop.
The highlight of the three-hour performance was the fashion show parody, which was separated into two sections: “The King’s Speech” and “Mother of the House.” Each of the dancers strutted out from the back curtain, wearing an absurd combination of clothing—leather jacket as cape, glittering headdresses, 1970s knit blanket as shawl, and pantless ensembles, while Harrell called out the names of the major fashion houses—Comme des Garçons, Yamamoto, and Hermes. Instead of directly quoting the voguers at the infamous Harlem balls with their sharp, competitive, and angular movements (vogue was a form of non-violent gang warfare between drag houses or families), the performers were elegant and sleek. In the second part, the dancers posed as women and Harrell took a seat in the audience, wittily commenting on the archetypes of females that strutted out: avant-garde Asian, African American with full derriere, etc. The voguing tradition is a performance of archetypal social and gender identities through fashion, and movement, practiced primarily by African-American and Latino gays, transvestites, and transsexuals.
The fashion show led to the crescendo of a dance party with performers free-styling, Harrell riling up the crowd, and at one point, plucking an audience member from the front row and, with him, leading a prayer that we release our inhibitions and dance. Perhaps this part was improvised, or Harrell just wanted us to assume so. Just as reluctant New Yorkers were finally brought to their feet and joined the party, the strobe lights slowly dimmed, the blaring music waned, and we were quickly taking our seats. In the final moments of Antigone Sr., the house was brought to complete blinding darkness and except for the barely perceptible movements of the dancers on stage. Antigone Sr. took the audience to extremes and sharply retreated to minimalism; it was exuberant and ethereal, sad and funny, and ultimately an authentic experience. At a vogue ball, a “look” (as in the title, Twenty Looks) is a chance to embody a dream, and that is just what happened—we explored icon-making, ultimately becoming part of a new history.