Tragedy Never Goes Out of Style: Trajal Harrell’s Antigone, Sr. @ the FTA

The business of contemporary dance is like a party with no closing time. Dancers exhaust and brutalize their bodies. Curators (party-planners in their own way) want to catch the hot new thing while it’s still fresh, and burn their budgets on international productions that have to be shown now to meet the demands of rarefied audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. At the end of the night, bodies are drenched in sweat, money’s spent, and none of us get to go home with the hot guy.

In Trajal Harrell’s Antigone Sr. / 20 Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church (L), the eros of the performance may distract you from the social commentary that permeates this prolific artist’s work. When I spoke to Harrell two years ago about his baroque collaborative work (M)imosa, with Marlene Freitas (also at the FTA this year), he spoke of his ground-breaking series of dance pieces as a way of reactivating and reimagining history.

A Yale graduate who studied under preeminent queer feminist scholar bell hooks, Harrell is the darling of the dance world right now, the newest and most intellectual expression of that always fertile – and très New York – antinomy: “the high-low” juxtaposition. His series, now a hallmark of postmodern dance, posits what dance may have looked like in a hypothetical world where black and latino Harlem voguers “came downtown” to the largely white laboratory of new dance and the Fluxus school, an auditorium known as the Judson Memorial Church. This is revisionist history given life, with the complexity of race, class, and sexuality left in.

But back to the hot guys we don’t go home with: Thibaut Lac, a coltish youth with the chiseled body of a model, Rob Fordeyn, a mercurial Flem who dons 5-inch heels to reign as a butch queen MC for one portion of the performance, Ondrej Vidlar (the Czech bear), and the breathtaking Stephen Thompson. As he did in (M)imosa, Harrell speaks directly to the audience: he sits, stands, hunches over his lap-top, or perches like an oracle on a small dais, nonchalantly dancing with his troupe, but mostly hovering, sitting in the aisles of Usine C reading from his iPad.

Adopting the dance-theatre technique of both improvised and memorized texts delivered in live voice, the dancers repeatedly pick up the mic to chant, sing, speak in aphorisms, or act as judge and commentator on the lengthy deconstructed “runway” fashion shows that form the central movement of Antigone Sr. Delicious and fun, but obviously not “dance” enough for the dozen or so “customers” who left halfway through the show.

Trajal Harrell (center), photo from his Facebook page

Harrell further flouted tradition by announcing in plain English, at the top of the show, exactly what he is going to do: mix voguing with postmodern contemporary art-for-art’s-sake dance, and further splice these sources with a rereading of the Sophocles tragedy Antigone, about a princess who defies her king/brother by ensuring her murdered other brother gets a decent burial. Even if the piece is so replete with references (to voguing balls, pop culture – specifically Britney Spears, Tori Amos, and Zebra Katz – and classical Greek tragedy) that very few audiences anywhere could ever grasp its essence entirely, Harrell’s opening speech was a bold and unpretentious way of putting us all on the same page. You can read the programme notes if you like, but you don’t have to. There’s a show to enjoy.

Like his contemporary, Miguel Gutierrez, whose “Age & Beauty Part 1: Mid-Career Artist/Suicide Note” had a sold-out run at the Whitney Biennial last month, Harrell is not interested in being hermetic. He may confuse you. He may outwit you. But he wants you to be in on the game.

Having done a little voguing myself, and been fascinated by its high/low play of dance, fashion, and queer realities (and theories), I was struck by how predictable and familiar some of the tableaux in Antigone Sr. seemed. The runway show with surreally manipulated Salvation Army finds (did that in 2011); the drawn-out fashion show imitations, essential to voguing, had a been-there, seen-that quality (Pippo Delbono and both went there years ago); and above all, the long, variously beautiful and banal turns at the microphone, which is a trend in dance that might not die anytime soon, and has spawned many a less successful imitator.

Smartly however, Harrell bookends his Size Large version of this challenging work with solo segments by his dancers, sometimes side by side, gorgeously lit on white rectangular “islands.” As in voguing, each of the performers’ particular charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent were allowed to shine, with Thompson and Fordeyn virtually stealing the show at the end. Thibault Lac, if you’re reading this: great catwalk!

Harrell positions himself as choreographer, dancer, theorist, revisionist historian, author, MC, and businessman, producing versions of his works in various sizes according to his customers’ budgets. According to the programme notes, once his 20 Looks… series is completed with an Extra Large version of Antigone Sr., he will be leaving the voguing/Fluxus duality, and all its camp and headiness, behind him to explore that purest of dance forms: Butoh.

With Paris is Burning’s 25th anniversary coming up next year, the revisiting of this urban art form by makers of high (i.e. heavily funded and talked about) art may be on its way out. You may want to get to the dance floor while the music is still pumping.

Antigone Sr. / 20 Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church (L) Wed. June 4, 8PM, @ Usine C, Part of the Festival Transamériques

Featured photo by Bengt Gustafsson with dancers (L to R): Rob Fordeyn, Stephen Thompson, Thibault Lac

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