As choreographer Trajal Harrell tells the audience at the start of the show, his series Twenty Looks or Paris Is Burning at the Judson Church, comes in eight sizes. We were about to see Antigone Sr., which is the large variety (my understanding of the Sr. in the title might be a clue to the scale). There exist smaller and larger sizes, and there is a made-to-measure version too. He’s been at this for several years now and, in Montréal, we saw (M)imosa, the medium version, at FTA two seasons ago. It’s smart marketing, as it gets the work iterated in different scales. Regardless of the size, the proposition remains the same: “What would have happened in 1963 if a voguer from a New York house ball strutted downtown to Greenwich Village from Harlem to perform alongside the collective of Judson Church postmodernists?” These dancers, composers and visual artists challenged the prevailing aesthetic in modern dance, and specifically its use of narrative, myth and psychology. In the face of bright lights, costumes and makeup, big personalities and even bigger presentation, the Judson artists radically embraced the ordinary and the pedestrian with a cool austerity. Fragmentation, juxtaposition and loosely structured scores were all part of the minimalistic immediacy of the work.
Harrell cautions us that this is not a historical piece — what we will see is in the here and now. There’s some other business he wants to let us know: those white blots on the stage should be farther back, giving more perspective. His arched eyebrow suggests they’ve had a problematic dress rehearsal in the space. And, he tells us, the lighting may not go according to plan. Oh, and the costumes are a work in progress, but they’ll make it work. Of course, it’s a staged disorder and proclaims the unintended “chaos” in advance. Harrell’s so amiable and charismatic; he’s got us in the palm of his hand, and we’re willing to go along with what’s intentionally unpolished.
While he’s seducing us (another irony because of the Judson’s imperative “No to seduction!”), his ensemble of fellow international performers are just hanging about on the minimalistic set, in street clothes. This is a seriously talented all-male group, including local favourite Stephen Thompson, Rob Fordeyn, Thibault Lac and Ondrej Vidlar. He reminds us about the reference to Sophocles’ Antigone, the incendiary story of a woman defying patriarchal culture: “It’s Greek tragedy, and we have to go all the way.” First thing I thought is this man is smart and he must have written one hell of a proposal for this project, because it touches all the hot buttons of our time: race, gender, sexuality, culture, history and the process of art-making. Funders must have adored this project.
Then he asks us all to rise for an anthem (which happens at drag balls). Lac starts slowly singing, a cappella, Britney Spears’ Baby, One More Time. More seduction. The crowd loves it. Harrell has one more cautionary note: he tells us the show runs two-and-a-half hours. “It’ll go by fast,” he suggests. It’s a foreboding comment that underlines my conflicted response to a work that I find both mesmerizing and annoying.
The opening section has some of the men dancing freely in the lit white islands of Marley, to pop, rap and rock tunes. They’re wonderful to watch and very expressive, but it’s a bit alienating, kind of like being at a party and seeing some really good dancers doing some nice moves, but very much in their own worlds. Again, if the Judsons were adhering to a non-spectacle perspective, this show, at least for now, is saying something else. Harrell breaks in, shouting, “Stop the show! Stop the motherfuckin’ show!” The lights go down, and he’s illuminated solely by the glow of his iPad; he’s sitting in an aisle, reciting a text. “There’s a legend in the house,” he intones. “An icon. The House of Thebes (aka Antigone) is in the house.” (The story of the play is doled out almost as anecdote, related by Harrell and Lac, as Antigone and her sister Ismene, in simple language).
“Paris is Burning” refers to the Golden Age of drag balls in the mid- to late-1980s (though the culture goes back to the 1950s). These competitions were fierce, with the voguers “walking,” similar to a fashion model’s runway, and then judged on criteria including the “realness” of their drag, the beauty of their clothing and their dancing ability. (How real is runway scene anyway?) There were Houses, referencing the designer houses of Chanel, Dior, etc., in which the drag performers could explore glamour and beauty; and within those houses, bonds were formed and families created. Gay men, butch queens and transgender people from poor inner-city black and Latino communities were all part of the scene, manipulating image and status, at least for the pageant. Some had to hide their sexuality in their daily lives, and voguing turned gender into a fantastical performance. At issue, beyond the glamour, was the reaction to living in a subculture in a rich, white world, where power was not in their grasp, other than at the balls.
Harrell takes a collage approach to his work and places it in a different house — a house of culture, the theatre. The stage has several intersecting, three-foot-wide lanes laid out on it in coloured paper held down with multicoloured tape. He works with the suggestive side of the balls (in terms of transforming objects and fabrics to create an extravaganza of headdresses, wearable art, recycled concoctions), with his marvelous performers adopting personas, imitating the dramatic poses lifted from the fashion magazines and “walking the walk.” What he achieves with his dancers is delving deeply, and morphing, into perceived stereotypes of the feminine persona and creating a variegated, broad sensual experience for the viewer. For the record, there are also some neat transformative moments where the dancers enact a “macho walk.” It’s also, at times, lots of fun. When Eurydice, the mother of Antigone’s fiancé, Haemon, is mentioned, we get to the see a bitchy, runway “battle” — the category “Mother of the House.”
There’s a laissez-faire tone to the show (the lighting and sound-cue glitches are a prime example), another nod to the postmodernists, and their adherence to a pared-down aesthetic. The dancers are not voguing, per se, but they are in a mode of postmodernist copying, ad infinitum, reflecting shades of realness, trying to get close to the authenticity of the tradition. We’re asked to reflect on what that means and how those ideas operate in a current cultural context.
I’m not sure that many in the larger public know a whole lot about the parallel history of the postmodernists and the voguers. I’d say Antigone Sr. is an intellectual exercise; that he is working through the intersection of race, gender and sexuality, by performing these with a firmly placed tongue in cheek. But, there is an uneasiness about this because, in the context of New York where voguing took root, the black and Hispanic body are missing from the work (other than Harrell’s own body).
The understanding, or lack, of Greek tragedy and ancient Greek theatre traditions (rituals, attitudes and men performing women’s roles) might leave a swath of the public just scratching their heads. Harrell is clearly interested in how he can retool history, conceptually, into an imaginative process. Some dance critics in New York have questioned the untethering of the piece from its social origins, suggesting that it shows it a certain lack of social consciousness. They ask, in a politically correct manner, why not go back to the source, to those black and Latino queer communities, and specifically the trans/drag, queer folks from the ballroom scene (at least those who are still alive, as AIDS decimated the original population), and have them have a look at the work? Frankly, I’m not sure that’s what Harrell is after, and why should he be?
Finally, Greek tragedy is dark, unforgiving and, after all, Antigone did meet a sad and futile death. The piece echoes that narrative, ending with the sound of quiet sobs before the stage falls into darkness. But before we enter that gloom, there are a few fleeting sparks of light, reminiscent of the flamboyant voguers we’ve seen pass before us. The underlying message is one of survival.
Antigone Sr., at two and a half hours, demands patience and concentration, and the energy of the piece lags. At one point, Harrell berates the audience for not responding enthusiastically enough, but by then many in the audience were clearly tired, or just not inspired enough. I think the theatre setting for the piece, with its formality and its built-in audience passivity, might be a mistake. After all, the balls weren’t in theatres, nor was the Judson work. About a third of the FTA audience decamped, in fits and starts, throughout the evening. “Work!” the performers said, repeatedly. Well, as far as the show goes, some parts did, and some didn’t.