Seats were at a premium in the spare studio space on the fourth floor of the majestic Monument-National for the radical and substantial hour-long Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem (Made-to-Measure). It’s the final chapter in American dance artist and researcher Trajal Harrell’s series Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church (M2M). Those lucky enough to secure a ticket for this intimate performance were in for a roof-raising treat.
The premise for this standout show centres around what might happen if the Judson Church postmodern artists (Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown and the lot) had gone uptown to Harlem to perform alongside the vogue ballroom performers. (His previous works saw the voguers going downtown.)
To set the work off, M2M mainstay Thibault Lac, in street clothes, gives a charming welcome telling the audience that what we’re about to see is a “possible” beginning for the piece. He exits, and music kicks in — a rich, club remix of Adele’s pop anthem Set Fire to the Rain serenades us. The stage is empty but for three straight-backed wooden chairs.
When the excellent cast (Lac, Harrell and Ondrej Vidlar) walk on, they’re wearing long, layered, diaphanous black gowns made by Vancouver-based clothing company complexgeometries. The look is a bit like Isadora Duncan offspring (though far from the Isadorables’ Grecian tunics), just updated. They sit, and all is quiet save Harrell who is weeping privately, a gentle tremor coursing through his body. Lac is elegant and stoic, but soon his eyes begin to well up, tears running down his cheeks. Vidlar speaks softly, evenly and repeatedly into his microphone: “Don’t stop.” (They all have mics, but only Vidlar is using his in this moment.) None of this makes much sense, but seeds are planted.
After all, who are these men? Are they all Judson artists, and is there some significance that Harrell is black and the other two are white? Is Harrell a black mourner in a Baptist congregation? The rhythmic cadence builds, with Harrell singing, “Good morning,” and Lac echoing him. Other phrases develop: “Don’t stop the dance,” and “Mama says, don’t stop the dance.”
Near the middle, the lights dim, and a small fan is turned on. Their costumes billow, and the place erupts with ballroom energy. The poses start. They strut and skip, dancing exuberantly and voguing full-on to a fun remix of Antony and the Johnsons. As Harrell intones, “Conceptual dance is over!” the others pepper the dancing with, “Work it!” and “Don’t think, work!”
In Harrell’s resonant work, histories and cultures are repositioned. His brilliant intersection exposes the realness of the Harlem balls — where extolling the virtue of “giving church,” means to give everything you’ve got, fierce and without constraint or compromise — alongside the essential minimalist tasks and rituals of another church (the Judson artists). At the heart of the work are ideas of essence, breaking with perceived notions of what constitutes community.
This is the end of the M2M series, but Harrell’s fascinating and valuable synthesis of thinking and considered approach to dancemaking will continue. Don’t ever stop, please!