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Saturday, September 14, 2013

Trajal Harrell: Seriously, What Did You People Expect?

Posted by Alison Hallett on Sat, Sep 14, 2013 at 11:57 AM

Dance isn’t really my thing. I don’t see too much of it, I don’t know much about it, I have no particular affinity for it. Sometimes in the line of duty I have to write about it, and I do my best with the limited perspective I have.

I say this not to qualify my opinions about Trajal Harrall’s Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem (Made-to-Measure)/Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (M2M) but rather to note that because I don’t see or think about dance very often, I have no real expectations about how a performance should or shouldn’t unfold. The handful of audience members who walked out of Friday’s performance clearly had expectations that weren’t being met, and I’d very much like to know what those expectations were. Did they expect a drag show? A colorful, outlandish spectacle? Or did they simply expect to not be deeply bored by the first half hour of the show?

The reason I’m so puzzled by this is that from where I sat, choreographer Harrall and his two dancers delivered exactly what was promised by the show's description. The premise of the show is a what if: What if, back in the 1960s, dancers from New York’s Judson School of Dance—which pioneered a post-modern approach devoted to upsetting audience expectations—had made their way to the Harlem dance halls where gay men were pioneering voguing, a la Paris Is Burning?

That’s *exactly what happened* onstage.

There was a really boring segment at the beginning where three men in gauzy black dresses sang songs and chanted “Don’t stop the dance” and Harrall sat on a chair and cried. I thought it was kind of funny and over-the-top “conceptual”—though the very glary PICA volunteer we were sitting next to absolutely did not appreciate that I found it funny—and in any case, it was very clear what was happening, which was that we were watching dancers who did not subscribe to traditional ideas about what dance is. And then they went to Harlem and their cerebral, composed performance dissolved into frenetic voguing, and occasionally chanting stuff like “conceptual dance / conceptual dance is over” which I also thought was kind of funny, and certainly more fun to watch. More people walked out during this segment. (Including one girl who would be banned from live performance forever, if I was Art Cop—not only did she walk out during the show (who does that?) but she *returned to get her jacket.*)

After seeing this show, dance remains “not really my thing,” but I can’t fault this performance at all: It did exactly what it said it was going to. It was conceptually coherent, and the high-energy voguing scenes were fun to watch. And, tsking PICA volunteer notwithstanding, I did find the whole thing pretty funny, and I think it was supposed to be funny; or at the very least, laughter as a response is not entirely out of keeping with the tone and intentions of the piece.

One side note: PICA needs to crack down on outside noise down during performances in that space. The show was held inside a blackbox theater built into a giant warehouse; it’s a nice little space with the downside that, because it’s a box with no top, there’s nothing to prevent outside noise from bleeding in. During the show’s last moments, the clomping of a woman in heels outside really took away from the finality of the ending. I felt bad for the dancers. But, they got a curtain call anyway, so at least the large segment of the audience that didn’t walk out seemed to appreciate it.

This is gonna be one of those shows that people argue about, so if you’re into that aspect of TBA, you should probably see this one. There’s one more show tonight at 8:30 pm, and a different show, Antigone Jr, tomorrow at 6 pm.

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