Performance Musings

Ariel Osterweis

Category: Trajal Harrell

WINKING AT JESUS: THE DANCING MASCULINITIES OF CAMPO AND TRAJAL HARRELL

This review first appeared on PICA’s blog on September 17th, 2013

Here is a direct link to the blog:

http://pica.org/2013/09/17/winking-jesus-dancing-masculinities-campo-trajal-harrell/

Since the 1960s, contemporary dance has been burdened by two predominant taboos: religion and emotion. Heartily challenging these taboos today are choreographers Pieter Ampe and Guilherme Garrido (the duo comprising Campo) and Trajal Harrell. During one evening here at PICA’s TBA13 festival, I saw Campo’s duet Still Standing You immediately followed by Harrell’s Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem (Made to Measure)/Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (M2M). Both casts are comprised entirely of men, unabashedly yet jaggedly burrowing into fraught spaces of becoming, the kinds of liminalities that reek of cohabitated dorm rooms, dried cum, and the sweat of dresses being aired out after a hard night at the ball.

Pieter Amp and Guiherme Garrido Still Standing You Photo by Phile Deprez Courtesy of Portland Institute for Contemporary Art

Pieter Amp and Guiherme Garrido
Still Standing You
Photo by Phile Deprez
Courtesy of Portland Institute for Contemporary Art

Entering the theater, the audience happens upon Still Standing You’s Ampe lying on his back onstage, his feet raised perpendicularly, with Garrido seated atop. Although Garrido could tumble to the ground at any moment, he addresses the audience with small talk (while wobbling a bit on the temporary seating of Ampe’s legs), asking about Portland’s rumored “vegan strip club” and its label of the “Rip City.” As Garrido nurtures this playful rapport with the audience, one detects Ampe’s fatiguing support, the increasing discomfort of the seemingly impossible task with which he has been charged. Herein lies the crux of the piece’s aesthetic: nonchalance amidst precariousness. Still chatting up the audience, Garrido clarifies, “What you’re about to see now is a contemporary dance show” and then instructs the crowd to utter in unison, “Pieter Ampe, we love you!” Encouraging a shift in tone while stretching his arms in front of him in an exaggeratedly stiff, straight parallel position, Garrido states, “Here we go. Contemporary style now. Here we go. Serious.”

What ensues in Still Standing You is the kind of dangerous play you find in many a boy-filled household. I say “household” as opposed to “playground” because Ampe and Garrido’s passages of roughhousing are punctuated by intimate moments of care and experimentation, that of two brothers who rip their clothes off like superheroes, one-up each other in absurd penis-slapping games, and tenderly nudge each other to assuage the brutality of boyhood. Here, the wild growls of lions and loud thuds of crashing robots are tamed by the domesticity of the barely detectable pitter-patter of two fingers catching up to each other across a patch of floor to indicate walking.  Such snippets of gestural storytelling appear in sharp contrast to the magnitude of Ampe and Garrido’s exaggerated risks and crashes. Finally, after an inventive pas de deux of penis-grabbing, foreskin-twisting, and Pilobolus-like body-pretzeling, the roles of support reverse and Garrido takes Ampe in his arms, generating an iconographic image reminiscent of the Virgin Mary holding Jesus in the pieta. In Campo fashion, the hold is precarious, and Ampe could slip out of Garrido’s arms at any moment.

Whereas Campo evokes the Bataillan incommensurability of the four-legged, sensory creature and the rational, upright human, Harrell depends on our recognition of the ubiquitous postmodern players known to us as supermodels. Moreover, in M2M, Harrell experiments with layers upon layers of performance, in which contemporary white dancers elicit black and Latino voguers of all genders from ballroom culture who, in turn, try on the hyper-feminized looks of fashion magazines. Throughout his series, Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church, Harrell has taken up gendered and racial performance, in which one gender performs another gender performing another gender, and so on. In doing so, he poses questions such as, what would happen if a voguer from Harlem’s 1963 ballroom scene went down to the Judson Church to hang out with the early postmoderns? M2Mreverses the series’ original provocation, exploring the imaginative limits and possibilities of an early postmodern (dancer) finding himself in the balls of Harlem. Drawing from the colloquial use of “giving church” found in ballroom culture—already a mix of high fashion posturing and the church-inspired lyrics of the deep house music that drives many a voguing competition—Harrell takes his audience to church with M2M. Needless to say, the aesthetic of “difficulty” central to Judson-inspired work tends to obscure the church service structure of M2M for the average viewer (at least according to my own surveying of audience members after the performance).

Ondrej Vidlar, Thibault Lac, and Trajal Harrell  Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem (Made to Measure)/Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (M2M) Photo by Chelsea Petrakis Courtesy of Portland Institute for Contemporary Art

Ondrej Vidlar, Thibault Lac, and Trajal Harrell
Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem (Made to Measure)/Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (M2M)
Photo by Chelsea Petrakis
Courtesy of Portland Institute for Contemporary Art

Like Still Standing YouM2M opens with audience address. The irrepressibly handsome Thibault Lac, awkwardly lanky and modishly coiffed enough to be—or at least stand in for—a Rick Owens model, coyly tells the audience in a French accent, “What you see couldn’t have been performed at Judson or the balls. I’ll ask you to forget this happened.” Lac suggests that the cast is merely trying out a possible beginning for the piece that they will likely discard. Yet, at no point is the culmination of the trial overture indicated, leading the audience to believe that the entire piece is a potentiality in itself, never etched into the tablets of history. Lac leaves the stage and the audience is met with the heavy bass and driving beat of a house remix of Adele’s impassioned (and widely played) “Fire to the Rain.” Unacceptable as it will seem to my academic cohort, I have lost nights upon nights of productivity to the emotional pull of this very song. An uncanny mnemonic, to hear it resonating throughout the theater, in public, is to sense a coalescence of queer community and mainstream cheapness. On the one hand, the song creates an affective commonality: conjuring a club, “Fire to the Rain” played as a danceless dance song points to dance’s potential. (My other favorite danceless opening to a dance piece done to dance music is that of Jerome Bel’s The Show Must Go On, in which, in a similar postdramatic mode, the lights take the entire length of the song “Let the Sunshine In” to rise on an otherwise empty stage.) Aside from an electric fan sitting on the floor, the stage is empty at this point. Finally the entire cast of three (Harrell, Lac, and Ondrej Vidlar) enters, clad in adjustable long black dresses by Complex Geometries, and sits down on wooden chairs. Seated upstage of Lac, Harrell immediately dons the pained expression of a woman wailing in church (a nod to Alvin Ailey’s iconic Revelations?). Because the audience is not privy to any emotional build-up that could have led to this moment of climax, Harrell’s expression reads as either a droplet of melodrama or grief stripped of context. Film scholar Linda Williams refers to melodrama as a “body genre,” as a film genre (or “mode”) that is excessive to the degree that its affect spills over beyond legibility (despite its recognizability).

Ever challenging established historical narratives (or the way they get “written”), Harrell has a knack for jogging the audience’s sense of temporality in two distinct ways, namely, through his strategic use of pop music and by deploying facial expressions of grief that function as signifiers. Harrell and company have explicitly stated that they are not voguers and that they do not completely embody its technique. Thus, pseudo-voguing here is a signifier of virtuosic dancing (but not its complete fulfillment). As such, Harrell points to the historical imperative for African American dancers to be virtuosic, to “be fierce.” Harrell is astute in drawing our attention—however opaquely—to the way melodrama and sincere emotion are easily conflated. In doing so, he arrives at the crux of ballroom culture (where voguing emerged), namely, its preoccupation with “realness,” the ability to pass such that one cannot be “read” (called out for faking it). In focusing on resemblance over reality, Harrell utters, “Sounds like the souls of black folks.” His fellow performers are white, dancing to a soulful soundtrack of house, disco, and hip-hop. Despite racialized and gendered ambivalence, however, M2Mconcerns itself with queer belonging, evoked at one point by the longing of Antony and the Johnson’s lyrics, “I need another place…will there be peace? I need another world, a place where I can go.” The dancers alternate between pious gestures of prayer (while holding phallic microphones) and frantic freestyle dancing that lies somewhere between runway strutting, voguing, and imitations of hip-hop. Evoking the demands of ballroom culture typically uttered by voguing MCs, Harrell, Lac, and Vidlar repeatedly say, “Mama said don’t stop the dance” as a command at times and a lullaby at others. In self-reflexive fashion, the dancers also state, “Contemporary dance is over.” However, in more play with colloquialisms, they could be saying “Contemporary dance is ovah,” which is a huge compliment, meaning “fabulous!” Perhaps one of the most hauntingly ambivalent commands Harrell preaches to the dancers during M2M is “Don’t think; work.” Which, of course, could be “Don’t think; werq,” and to werq is to fulfill ballroom’s realness, to be an utterly convincing performer. Nevertheless, the danger Harrell points to is our culture’s expectations for (and assumptions of) black performance as unthinking labor, far from the self-reflexive, critical terrain of Harrell’s imaginings. What does it mean, though, that the dancer “working” the hardest is Lac, flinging his limbs every which way in a sinewy, breakneck solo that tries to defy stereotypes of white boys and rhythm? In following the command to work/werq, the dancers emerge from M2M covered in sweat. Things wind down and fire returns via a lonely plea into the mic: “Won’t you wet my fire with your love, baby?” “M2M” could also stand for man-to-man. Both Campo and Harrell remind us that, underlying boys’ huge capacity for play is the threat of violence: what risks will you take for (and to perform) your identity, whether heterosexual, homosexual, or otherwise? (Is Jesus watching? And, who’s there to support you when he fails?)

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Ariel Osterweis is Assistant Professor of Dance at Wayne State University (Detroit, MI). She earned her Ph.D. in Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley and B.A. in Anthropology at Columbia University. At work on her first book, which theorizes virtuosity, race, and sexuality in the dance career of Desmond Richardson, Osterweis also researches contemporary African dance and the disavowal of virtuosity in feminist and transgender live art and performance. Publications appear inDance Research Journal, Women and Performance, e-misféricaTheatre Survey, The Oxford Handbook of Dance and the Popular Screen, and more. She danced professionally with Complexions Contemporary Ballet, Mia Michaels, and Heidi Latsky, choreographs, and is dramaturg for choreographer John Jasperse and performance artist Narcissister. Osterweis is currently living in New York City.

TRAJAL HARRELL’S (EMAIL) JOURNEY FROM JUDSON TO HARLEM

This interview with Trajal Harrell first appeared on PICA’s blog on September 13th, 2013

Here is a direct link to the blog:

http://pica.org/2013/09/13/trajals-harrells-email-journey-judson-harlem/

Trajal Harrell Interviewed by Ariel Osterweis over email in early September for PICA’s Time-Based Art Festival.

 

Ariel Osterweis: The last time we sat down to discuss your work, we reflected on Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (S). What struck me from that discussion was your claim that, for you, voguing functioned as a “theoretical praxis,” that you refused to embody it. How has that notion changed, developed, or remained the same since that time? For example, does taking a voguing class (if you have) undo that claim? And how has your idea of voguing as a theoretical praxis brought you to your current work, which you will be presenting at PICA’s TBA festival?

 

Trajal Harrell: I think it is always important to say that I am not a voguer. I don’t make voguing. I make contemporary dance. I work with voguing and early postmodern dance as theoretical praxes. I am not trying to learn voguing moves and fuse them with postmodern dance moves, if those exist. I am addressing the theory and tenets underneath the two different aesthetics. Mainly, I am working through voguing’s idea of “realness” and postmodern dance’s “authenticity.” Yes, I have taken a few [voguing] classes, but class is not the praxis I speak of. When I speak about voguing, I am speaking about the voguing ballroom scene. You cannot learn that in a class. It is a form of social performance and a practice of community.

 

In terms of the two pieces I am presenting at TBA, it is the same thing—“twirling,” so to speak, between “authenticity” and realness. Too often, I think people forget about the early postmodern dance part, and they focus solely on the voguing. With the Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem piece, the early postmodern dance praxis is hard to miss.

 

AO: Twirling between (voguing’s) realness and (postmodernism/Judson’s) authenticity! (Do we want to make explicit a discussion of quotation marks here? I’m more inclined to put quotation marks around “authenticity.” I feel the ballroom scene and Judith Butler have done a pretty good job of defining realness, allowing the word to mean what it performatively means—performing to the extent that one passes and cannot be “read”; whereas, “authenticity” opens up a huge can of worms.) I’m excited about Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem (Made to Measure)/Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (M2M). How does it differ from the other “sizes” I have seen (such as S(M)imosa andXS)? You suggest that your praxis is a sort of practice-meets-theory in which a particular socio-cultural history (of ballroom culture) informs your choreography and interacts with Judson’s postmodernist explorations of authenticity. Do you even like that word, “choreography?”

 

I agree that the term “fusion” has no place in describing your work. First of all, fusion indicates a mixture of two or more elements, and when it refers to dance, it typically indicates the blending of codified techniques (or at least highly stylized forms). Whether embraced or shunned, the word “fusion” tends to emerge alongside a colonialist or exoticizing impulse, at least in common discourse (think “Asian fusion” cuisine, for example. The “Asian” is inevitably effaced or bastardized at best). And there’s something anti-colonialist or recuperative about your project, about exploring what could have happened if a Harlem voguer from the ballroom scene in the 1960s had gone downtown to collaborate with the Judson Dance Theater (famous for Yvonne Rainer’s No Manifesto, which declared “no to virtuosity” and “no to spectacle”). Of course, voguing’s end goal is virtuosity, specifically virtuosity that can be described as “fierce,” virtuosity so precise and breakneck that it can’t be touched by questions of realness (so “unreal,” colloquially speaking, that it is undeniably “real”). If size S served us deceleration and (M)imosa’s exploration of drag was a total gender-fuck, how might you distill “(M2M)?” 

 

TH: Church! And, yes, I like the word “choreography” and think we should indeed place quotation marks around “authenticity.”

 

AO: Church. You had mentioned gospel. Are we now going uptown to a church in Harlem? What does this mean for Yvonne and her Judson cohort? I mean, on some level they must have loathed having the name “Church” associated with them, as in the Judson Dance Theater rehearsing at the Judson Church. Do you think postmodern “authenticity” embraces the idea of the secular person devoid of religion? So often in concert dance training (especially, in my experience of ballet and modern—think, Graham and Ailey), one speaks of a “calling,” a “gift” of talent that one holds a responsibility to fulfill (similar to but not identical to Weber’s Protestant ethic of capitalism), and this is not far from a religious mentality. However, the Judson aesthetic seems so stripped of religion and spirituality. I’m curious to hear how you envision Judson at church. What kinds of praxes are at work in this project (M2M)?

 

I know it’s not my turn to email, but something just struck me. I was reading a Time Out magazine interview of Wendy Whelan describing her new project, and she says she found Kyle Abraham so “hot and passionate and intense” that she wanted to “feel what that feels like” and subsequently asked him to choreograph on (!) her (8/15/13). We don’t need Miley Cyrus’ recent VMA antics to tell us that appropriating blackness is one of the foundations of American popular culture. But what of high art appropriations? Claims of “authenticity” often come with charges of appropriation. So, what would it mean (and what would be the stakes of) appropriating the Judson aesthetic? What happens when we accuse (or don’t accuse) performers of appropriating whiteness?

 

TH: Ha! That is super-loaded, and here I have to quote myself a bit: “My position in all of this is not without problematization. Though I am African-American, I am not a voguer from Harlem. I am much more from the legacy of postmodern dance [and Judson Church]. I wanted to problematize this location and the space I occupy within it. Therefore, I also felt the series had to have the classic double migration. So, we go back from Judson Church up to the balls in Harlem. For this I wanted to go directly to my own personal cultural roots and see how they affix themselves between these two locations. The Made-to-measure size, thereby, activates a singular position that I needed to acknowledge in the final piece of the series.” That’s all to say, most people do not come to me to appropriate blackness. My work is steeped in post-blackness (maybe the “post-” isn’t fulfilling enough). My roots are also in “white” culture. I don’t feel at all that I am appropriating whiteness. I am aware that the Judson aesthetic was developed by white artists, but I don’t think minimalism and pedestrianism nor any of Yvonne Rainer’s anti’s are white, per se. Sure, we cannot separate the means of production and distribution from the realities of sex, race, class, and sexuality, etc. Regardless, authenticity was a fiction that Judson constructed as well. In terms of performativity, we find it very useful in the work that we do. What people do appreciate in the work is this problematization, because if we are honest, that’s where everyone sits. My career and Kyle’s have blossomed in the same historical moment. I hope one day someone looks specifically at the links and differences.

 

I turn the proposition around: what would have happened in 1963 if someone from Judson Dance Theater had gone uptown to perform in the voguing ballroom scene? What would it mean to come from Judson Church, to go uptown from Judson to Harlem? In my imagination, you would have to “give church” at the balls. In a voguing context or African-American context, “giving church” means giving it your all or taking it to the umpteenth degree.

 

AO: I appreciate your reflections on authenticity and appropriation. Because of my mixed-race identity, I am continually preoccupied with the idea of belonging. Your discussion of “roots” and your use of the pronoun “we” intrigue me. What exactly do you mean by your “cultural roots” and who is the “we” to which you refer?

 

TH: By cultural roots, I mean the topography of influences and socialization that have informed my personal identity and history: Polo Ralph Lauren, Madonna, The Flintstones, country and western music, the Clintons, CNN, Andy Warhol, Ralph Lemon, Adele,  fried chicken, South Beach, bell hooks, Andre Agassi, Mark Rothko, Marguerite Duras, the Indigo Girls, Patti Labelle, the list goes on and on. And the “we” I refer to are me and the dancers with whom I work.

 

AO: Can you tell me about your upbringing and your experiences growing up? I mean, (pop)culturally, we are urged to “own it,” on the one hand, but not to steal it, on the other. I wonder if “owning it” is only a message for the marginalized or weak, or if it gives license to appropriators at large, regardless of race or class. You and your fellow performers own it all over the place!

 

TH: I grew up in a small town in southeast Georgia. There were no voguing balls and no contemporary dance, but I did lie when I was eight years old about what time my gymnastics class got out. I said it was an hour later so I could stay and watch the girls’ ballet class. No boys took ballet, but I was always there with my head in the door, watching from 4pm-5pm.

 

AO: Ha!

 

On the one hand, you seem to point to blackness (and/as gay black men and queer black masculinity), but on the other hand, you are working with forms that you haven’t necessarily lived with for a long period of time (voguing and postmodern), relatively speaking. What I’m wondering, more specifically, is, how and when do you find yourself an insider in ballroom culture (whether or not you vogue or don’t vogue) and how/when do you find yourself an insider in the Judson tradition (and perhaps more broadly, in “Western Civ,” since you tackle Antigone and Greek mythology in one piece you present at PICA)? Conversely, when do you find yourself an outsider?

 

TH: As an artist I am constantly shifting my location between insider and outsider. It goes beyond Judson and voguing. As an artist it is important for me to simultaneously occupy that dual positionality in order to experience the world.

 

AO: I assume that these terms (insider/outsider) are problematic for you, which is why I ask these questions. Especially now that I teach in a university environment, I find the issue of education very interesting in relationship to dance. Those of us who grew up in conservatory environments (not to mention the ethic driving American pop culture) were encouraged to “shut up and dance” and the trope of the dumb dancer persists today. Nevertheless, we find tension in the dance world between those who speak and those who do not (by choice or otherwise). More “conceptual”/”experimental” dance makers rely on text, discourse, and dramaturgy in a way that is sometimes looked down upon by more traditional/presentational concert choreographers. Few compelling contemporary dance makers steer clear of such reliance on a discursive backdrop, one informed by certain bents of critical and performance theory.

 

TH: I think that relying on text, discourse, and dramaturgy can be limiting when you want to engage more than a (S)mall audience. That’s what I worked on in the series. Too often in experimental dance, that’s where dance makers stay, and it blocks engaging a larger audience. In (S)mall, the performative operation is transparent. That is what makes that work important. But after (S), [my concern is] that too much focus on the performative operations can block the experience of the work.

 

I have never heard someone say, “I can’t wait to go read that dance.” My work is founded in theory, but I work to build on the theory, not to rely on it as a status symbol. So both sides have a point—the presentational and the conceptual. I’m interested in making Art with a capital A; and for that, I must always remember that theory and discourse are tools, not the thing itself.

 

AO: It’s interesting to hear you discuss size not only in terms of a piece’s scale, but in terms of the size of an audience in relation to a piece’s reliance on (or exposure/concealment of) theory.

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Ariel Osterweis is Assistant Professor of Dance at Wayne State University (Detroit, MI). She earned her Ph.D. in Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley and B.A. in Anthropology at Columbia University. At work on her first book, which theorizes virtuosity, race, and sexuality in the dance career of Desmond Richardson, Osterweis also researches contemporary African dance and the disavowal of virtuosity in feminist and transgender live art and performance. Publications appear inDance Research Journal, Women and Performance, e-misféricaTheatre Survey, The Oxford Handbook of Dance and the Popular Screen, and more. She danced professionally with Complexions Contemporary Ballet, Mia Michaels, and Heidi Latsky, choreographs, and is dramaturg for choreographer John Jasperse and performance artist Narcissister. Osterweis is currently living in New York City.