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In Performance: Trajal Harrell, Caen Amour (Tanz im August)

Caen Amour
Trajal Harrell
Tanz im August, HAU2
August 17-19

“Hoochie in the front, koochie in the back,” explains the chipper woman who takes the stage early in Caen Amour to walk us through the performance. She is referring to the hoochie-koochie show, a pastiche of so-called “oriental” and “exotic” dance styles that emerged in the U.S. in the early twentieth century, which provides the framework for Trajal Harrell’s piece. Her statement also playfully introduces us to the performance’s bifurcated playing area, created by a flat backdrop (with one doorway and a shadow-play window) cutting across the middle of the space. On one side is the show proper: dancers enter through the doorway, shake and strut their way across the stage, and make a tantalizing exit on the other side of the wall. On the other is “backstage”: the dancers change costumes, set up and perform the shadow-play, blow their nose, windex a mirror, prep for their next entrance. We the audience are free to move between the two, shifting our position and point of reference at will.

This arrangement spatializes the varied perspectives we might take on Harrell’s source material. Known for staging theoretical encounters between different dance traditions, Harrell is interested in provoking our relationship to the past, in blurring the boundaries between divergent eras, attitudes, signifiers, and historical narratives. While it might be easy for a contemporary spectator to write off hoochie-koochie as a problematic relic, Harrell (as he explains in a Choreographer’s Note that he hands out during the performance) wants us to both acknowledge the “-isms” of the form and to imagine the possibilities for agency and “creative resistance between the cracks of history.” This is perhaps most clearly observed by standing in the neither-here-nor-there area between the front and back sides of that dividing wall, a perspective that offers a view of both the performative dancing and the (differently but equally performative) “behind-the-scenes” preparations. Between the hoochie in the front and the koochie in the back, between the past and the present, Caen Amour locates a space of multiplicity, simultaneity, and potentiality.

Photo: Orpheas Emirzas

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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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