Trajal Harrell’s simmering dance fever

by Lew Whittington for The Dance Journal

Choreographer Trajal Harrell’s Bessie Award-winning “Antigone Sr./Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church” choreographic masterpiece of (sur)realness.  It was a blazing artistic and commercial hit at FringeArts in 2014.  Harrell, constantly on tour the world over, returned to FringeArts this season with his 2017 piece ‘Caen Amour’ the more portable show a raucous expose on dance erotica through the ages.

Harrell’s stream of consciousness choreography touching on everything from ancient Arabic and Indian sacred/profane dance eroticism and its evolution into ‘hoochie-coochie” carny and burlesque circuits in depression era America as the raw material eventually mined by legit modern choreographers.

This is not a linear narrative, but a very fertile choreographic thesis, yet ‘Caen’ in its current version strikes as a rough draft at key moments.  As in Paris is Burning, the work is a streaming mosaic of dance idioms from different genres and techniques. Decidedly specific, as opposed to the concepts of dance ‘fusion.’

“Caen” opens while the audience comes on the staging area so Harrell can greet everyone as they are shown to their seats. He is also free dancing to an after-hours 90s club mix until everyone is seated and he seems to lock into a fevered invocation to the rhythmic backbeat.

Meanwhile, the other dancers Thibault Lac, Ondrej Vidlav and Perle Perlombe, cart on luggage, costumes, props and headdresses, and stash in the back of a flimsy castle set, that seemed on loan from the old Trocadero strip palace circa 1920.

When everything is set up, Alex Tatarsky, the emcee, pops out of the audience with instructions of how the audience can move around the stage and see the backstage quick changes of the dancers (Alex instructs that drinks are allowed, touching not). Then she announces a preview dance of something called ‘The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai.’  This scene features Lac stalking around, his body morphed into a raptor reptile, contorting his body grotesquely, even hoping backward from a deeply squatted position.  Just as suddenly Vidlav, hidden under a gorgeous iridescent body shroud floats around in the creature. It is a completely baffling comic study of contrasts, but the moves of both dancers, otherwise spellbinding.

The bafflement continued even as Alex and Harrell handed out a leaflet describing origins of ‘hoochie coochie,’ In fact, the dramaturg was clearly a jumping off point and ultimately too much scaffolding- the essence of Caen Amour are the spells, erotic and otherwise, these dancers project in real time.

Lac and Vidlav stomping the runway ala like Naomi conquering Paris or exuding coy machismo like Dolce underwear models in Milan. The movement juxtapositions and contrasts coming so fast it is futile to try to figure out the point. All three dancers perform in sustained phrases in fluid full relevé, a classicist touch that in fact adds a lyrical line to any bump and grind.

Past that, Harrell’s performers are sensual, bawdy and erotic, with no sense that they are being sexually exploited or objectified.  Perlombe, is fully nude, dancing lithely behind a gorgeous semi-sheer body length scarf, her full silhouette the body beautiful penultimate work of art.  It does beg the question though, why it is that Perlombe is the only performer that dances completely nude (unless I missed something).  The costumes are by Harrell and the dancers and dazzle throughout- highlights include, Perlombe’s breakaway midnight blue feather dress and what can only be described as a Versace hijab.  The repeated motif of the dancers clutching costumes in front of them, everything from jeans, floral skirts, suit jackets, skivvies, is editorial on the arbitrary social dress codes that negatively contribute to gender and racial stereotypes.

Those audience members who didn’t venture behind the set lost out on a peek at the gritty and Bauhaus esprit of the backstage atmosphere. The dancers shedding their costumes and personas like at will, helping each other in and out of costumes.  The most potent visuals occurred If you stood to the side with a view of the front and back of the stage. At one point Perlombe sits in the back playing the tambourine between costumes, as Harrell is inching across the stage, clutches a pink 30s era cotillion gown to his chest and inching across the stage like a Butoh artist his face a tragedy mask), And also in sight, Vidlav and Lac, in harem silk garb and carrying ornate metal bowls in a sultry, sacred duet.

Harrell liberates physicality from rigidly assigned identification to male and female roles.  The psychosexual implications on the dance concert stage particularly relevant now, as transgender and intersex identity needs to be part of representation on the dance stage.   In all of Harrell’s work, his global music, from pop gems like Sade’s ‘Frankie’s First Affair’ to entrancing mystic orchestral, is flawless.

Interesting that ‘Caen Amour’ was staged in 2017 at a gallery the in London and one wonders if it may, in fact, work better conceptually in an alternate space.   Siobhan Murphy reviewed it when it premiered last year in its iteration as a performance exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery and notes that it was described on the gallery wall “as a fictional encounter between the art nouveau icon Loïe Fuller, the Japanese Butoh pioneer Tatsumi Hijikata and the Comme des Garçons fashion designer Rei Kawakubo.”

So, there is even an extra piece to the performance puzzle. Harrell explores very fertile choreographic ideas, but ‘Caen Amour’ at FringeArts had the feel of an ambitiously unrealized piece. But this was the ‘hoochie-coochie’ after all and the ultimate reveal is best summed up by the famous Mama Rose to her star stripper daughter Gypsy Rose Lee “Make them beg for more, then don’t give it to em.”

 

About Lewis J. Whittington

Lewis Whittington is an arts journalist based in Philadelphia. He started writing professionally in the early 90s as a media consultant for an AIDS organizations and then as a theater and dance reviewer for the Philadelphia Gay News. Mr. Whittington has covered dance, theater, opera and classical music for the Philadelphia Inquirer and City Paper.

Mr. Whittington’s arts profiles, features, and stories have appeared in The Advocate, Dance International, Playbill, American Theatre, American Record Guide, The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, EdgeMedia, and Philadelphia Dance Journal. Mr. Whittington has received two NEA awards for journalistic excellence.

In addition to interviews with choreographers, dancers, and artistic directors from every discipline, he has interviewed such music luminaries from Ned Rorem to Eartha Kitt. He has written extensively on gay culture and politics and is most proud of his interviews with such gay rights pioneers as Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings.

Mr. Whittington has participated on the poetry series Voice in Philadelphia and has written two (unpublished) books of poetry. He is currently finishing Beloved Infidels, a play about the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh. His editorials on GLBTQ activism, marriage equality, gay culture and social issues have appeared in Philadelphia Inquirer, City Paper, and The Advocate.

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