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In Performance: Trajal Harrell, Twenty Looks…(S) (American Realness)

American Realness
Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (S)
Trajal Harrell (USA)
Abrons Arts Center, Playhouse
466 Grand St

January 6-10

The stage of the Abrons Playhouse has been transformed into a runway, a black strip running down the center of a white rectangle. There is an informal but buzzy vibe as the sold-out audience climbs the stairs onto the stage and takes its place on three sides of the runway. Are we attending a fashion show, a social event, an artistic performance? The space begins to articulate the intentions of Trajal Harrell’s solo, a remounting of the first work in his Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church series. Further guidance is provided by a leaflet that Harrell himself hands out at the beginning of the performance, which lists the titular twenty looks as well as providing basic information on the voguing ball scene and the postmodern tradition pioneered by Judson Dance Theater. I appreciated the choreographer’s good-natured, straightforward contextualization of his own work, focusing my attention on the very specific intentions of this performance.

Aided by minimal but transformative costume changes, Harrell presents the looks in the order listed. They progress from the basic catalog pose of “West Coast Preppy School Boy” all the way to the grandly mysterious apotheosis of “Alt-Moderne feeling the French Lieutenant’s Woman.” There are dramatic walks, visual jokes (“Serving Superhero” sees Harrell sporting an apron as a cape), and lots and lots of face. However, the choreography shies away from the competitive showiness of ball culture in favor of a more restrained aesthetic, alternately wry and melancholic. It is fascinating to watch these seemingly opposed impulses balanced together in one dancer’s body. Harrell’s thoughtful, dynamic performance respectfully quibbles with Yvonne Rainer’s “No Manifesto,” asserting that style, camp, and transformation can coexist with the minimalist virtues of postmodern dance.

[Photo credit: Arron Leppard]


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Philip Wesley Gates is a director, performance maker, and writer/scholar currently based in Pittsburgh. Deploying queer, choreographic, and participatory strategies, their work proposes alternative possibilities and modes of relation. They hold an MFA in Directing from Carnegie Mellon University.

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