Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Trajal Harrell: Serving looks at The Kitchen

Dancer Trajal Harrell and his audience,
prepare for Monday night performance at The Kitchen.
(all photos: Eva Yaa Asantewaa)
Trajal Harrell is, by now, legendary for his "looks"--specifically, the array of interconnected dance projects, created since 2008, that wear the title Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church. In each of these pieces, Harrell plays with the fantasy of crossing two influential performance movements that arose in New York in the 1960s--a neutral minimalism favored by "downtown" dance artists, questioning what dance is, and Harlem's competitive and fabulous ball culture. Harrell's works, like articles of clothing, come in a variety of sizes--(XS), (S), (jr.), and so on, leading up to what he says will be a publication (XL). On Monday night, Harrell performed his solo, (S), at The Kitchen as part of FIAF's 2014 Crossing the Line Festival.

In the stripped-down, democratic Judson aesthetic, external appearance was nothing; in the world of the balls, it was everything, all about displaying the look of something you're not and, in most cases, will never be. That surface look transcends its illusion and elusiveness, cleverly employing yet moving beyond costume and even physicality to something trickier to glimpse, the spirit of the performer. That spirit becomes more clearly visible the longer we watch Harrell perform (S).

For (S), Harrell spends an hour on and around his catwalk, shifting through twenty personae of apparel and movement, starting from "West Coast Preppy School Boy" (in yellow slicker and white flipflops) and nerdy "East Coast Preppy School Boy" (complete with Obama backpack). In a Judsonian touch, the frequent costume changes take place right in front of us at a stand of ordinary folding chairs draped in pants, jackets and other gear, shoes and boots stored beneath. Harrell dons each "look" with zero fuss and with utmost transparency, hurriedly discarding one outfit for the next. Harrell's strides back and forth and around the rim of watchers, though inspired by the atmosphere and dramatics of a high fashion runway, are based in matter-of-fact human walking.

In the early phases at least, he takes on a modest, restrained demeanor that looks like the imaginary Harlemite showing up for postmodern dance class: "I'm here, but I'm not here." But there's way too much drama, way too much Josephine Baker, Graham, Basquiat, Meryl Streep in this guy to be sealed up in pure Judson, and what Harrell allows to shimmer through and seep out of any and all formal containers can be weirdly beautiful.

More "looks" coming up: (M)imosa, tonight at 8pm; (jr) Antigone Jr. and, at 9:30pm (Plus) Antigone Jr. ++ on Wednesday; (L) Antigone Sr. on Friday; and (M2M) Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem on Saturday. Clicking here will get you complete schedule, casting and ticket information.

The Kitchen
512 West 19th Street (between 10th and 11th Avenues), Manhattan

For more information on FIAF's 2014 Crossing the Line Festival, running through October 20, click here.

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