Trajal Harris

TBA:13: Trajal Harrell vogues in post-modern dance church

The New York choreographer's performance does some time travel and alternate history construction

My Time-Base Art Festival (TBA, from now on) started Friday night at the Con-Way warehouse in Northwest Portland, a nice capacious space with plenty of room for a theater, art installations, a bar with its own stage and party room. I was there for the theater, specifically to see Trajal Harrell’s “Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem (Made-to-Measure)/Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church (M2M).”

The title says it all! Well, at least it suggests that we are in complicated conceptual terrain. “Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem” is one of seven parts of a dance work that begins with the following proposition: What would happen if proponents of the 1980s Harlem-born dance craze called voguing showed up at the Judson Church in the 1960s as post-modern dance was being created. Craze? Well, maybe it was more like a way of life. This particular piece purports to reverse the “migration”: Judson Church travels to Harlem.

Trajal Harrell (L), Ondrej Vidlar (C) and Thibault Lac/Photo by Chelsea Petrakis, courtesy PICA

Trajal Harrell (L), Ondrej Vidlar (C) and Thibault Lac/Photo by Chelsea Petrakis, courtesy PICA

I’m not sure why I even wrote that last sentence because the piece itself doesn’t literally drop someone like Trisha Brown in a Harlem ballroom in the ‘80s to see the highly developed LGBT-created vogue forms in action (and then maybe stick around for the famous Jennie Livinston documentary made on that scene, “Paris is Burning”). It does re-animate some vogue applications: Harrell (one of three performers) does some of the flow-y Vogue Fem movements, for example, and some of the vogue gestures, ancient Egyptian style. But “Judson Church” is very impressionistic.

I started to type “very conceptual.” That’s funny (not in the ha-ha sense). After a lugubrious beginning section, which includes some sad songs and the performers seated and repeating such lines as “Don’t stop” and “good morning, heartache,” things start to heat up, physically. That’s when the voguing begins and eventually the performers do little solos for each other. As one dances the others say, “Work!” and then “Don’t think: Work!”, a suggestion I like a lot. And then Harrell says, “ Conceptual dance is over,” repeating it several times. So we have the announcement of the death of conceptual dance in the middle of a conceptual dance piece. Brilliant!

This isn’t the place to make an argument about the various uses of dance, because they are too varied and complex.  On the face of it Judson Dance proponents and Harlem voguers have practically nothing in common. Except, of course, that Harrell has forced them together, and maybe that they both advocate for freedom—in different ways, at different times, for different groups of people. Reading over Harrell’s accounts of this set of pieces, I only start to unravel his densely knotted understanding of this cultural fabric.

I enjoyed the soundtrack, even the sad songs, and even more I enjoyed the performers. Harrell is a tidy mover and has a fine voice, which he raises frequently in song. Thibault Lac is tall and lanky with a boyish shock of hair and an engaging presence. Ondrej Vidlar does most of the admonishing that we shouldn’t stop, and proved an able and energetic mover, too.

The theater was packed for this show, and maybe a lot of them will be back to see another part of the master work at 6 pm Sunday, “Antigone Jr.”, just to see if one more data point will help explain what’s going on, exactly. Or, more likely, to get another glimpse of Harrell and company in action.


Waiting in line, I heard several people extol the virtues of Campo’s “Still Standing You,” which had played earlier in the evening. It repeats Saturday night at 6:30 pm in the Winningstad Theatre.

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