The bleak shotcrete interior of a typical late sixties West German church provides the setting for New York choreographer Trajal Harrell’s piece Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem (Made-to-Measure)/Twenty looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church (M2M), most definitively one of the highlights of this year’s Tanz im August program. The former place of worship doesn’t just allow an absolute focus on the three performers, it also alludes to the historical role of Judson Church. In the Sixties this congregation as well as art space in Greenwich Village opened up its doors to artists from various genres, offering them a space for their art and freeing them from financial and/or political constraints. The resulting Judson Dance Theatre turned into the cradle of post-modern dance, with contributions by dance icons such as Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, Steve Paxton and Yvonne Rainer. Ever since its first performance in 1962 the company played a major role in revolutionizing the world of dance.
The other imagined venue of this piece are the ballrooms of Harlem, where, at the same time that postmodern choreographers downtown were developing their experimentalist approaches to dance, the predominantly African-American and Latino gay community created a new dance style performed at so-called Balls. Inspired by drag shows and the world of fashion, voguing established a very unique form language which was later popularized in music videos like Malcolm McLaren’s Deep in Vogue (starring one of the protagonists of ‚Paris is burning‘, the seminal documentary about voguing mentioned in Harrell’s title) or most prominently in Madonna’s 1990 Vogue.
Regardless of the very apparent differences between post-modern dance and ballroom voguing (Yvonne Rainer’s 1965 No Manifesto contains claims such as “No to style. No to eccentricity. No to the glamour and transcendency of the star image.“ and thus reads like the direct negation of voguing’s guidelines), Harrell manages to carve out their underlying similarities. Experimentation with different modes of walking and the importance of isolated gestures are just the most obvious common features, yet there’s more to be gained from this unlikely hybridization.
With its abundance of historical innuendos and cross references Harrell’s performance is very much in line with a lot of what the festival’s program has to offer this year, but luckily, the piece is so much more than a medley of different styles or a very sophisticated lesson in dance history .
The question „What would have happened if one of the early postmoderns from Judson church had gone uptown to perform in the voguing ballroom scene in Harlem?“ is the central inspiration for this piece, yet Harrell is fully aware that this encounter between Harlem’s ballrooms and the villages’s community of post-modern choreographers never happened for various concrete reasons. His work is about artificially creating the place and time for this encounter, which reality denied, thus revealing the possibilities of such an unlikely union.
Voguing, and its protagonists lacked the socio-cultural standing to (for posterity) be more than an (albeit important) contribution to pop culture, whereas post-modern choreographers were destined to enter the dance hall of fame. This is painfully evident in the tragic fate of some of the Paris is Burning protagonists who didn’t have the luck to ‚make it on the big screen‘ but instead ended up dead, shunned by a hostile society. What voguing did accomplish though was that it allowed its dancers to leave the roles assigned to them by society on the clothes hanger along with the humiliations and discriminations that come along with them.
Voguing critics like Bell Hooks who spoke of an alleged „obsession with an idealized fetishized version of femininity that is White“ or Judith Butler, who calls voguing a „fatally unsubversive appropriation“, both miss the subjective sense of empowerment that comes along with imitating and appropriating runway gestures and attitudes. Voguing is not merely a compensation for a lack of social appreciation, like every art form it transcends its psychological origins and creates something new and powerful. The Ballroom scene was more than a performance space, the ‚Houses‘ run by so-called mothers were part of a system of kinship and solidarity, something their members could not find in their own families or society. As an expression of yearning, a means to carry out tensions, create and consolidate community, and as a source of otherwise denied recognition, voguing is far more than uncritical copying of runway posing.
Harrell’s choreography manages to capture this ‚more‘, the if you will ‚artistic surplus‘, that is lost in voguing’s integration into pop culture. The ease with which Harrell and his fellow dancers Rob Fordeyn and Thibault Lac switch between embodying vulnerable victims of love, confident runway queens and fierce b-boys is stunning and is in itself an impressive demonstration of one of voguing’s central pillars. The ability to completely turn into somebody else, flawlessly represent an image, is referred to as ‚realness‘. ‚Realness‘ is not just about deception, the confident, provocative attitude that comes along with it is the essence of what it means to make all insecurities and scars vanish with just an assertive wave of the hand.
The range of emotions featured in Harrell’s work, from utter despair to childish light-heartedness, was not necessarily what I expected from the show, which isn’t primarily a flamboyant tribute to the art of voguing, merely combining it with the achievements of the early pioneers of postmodern dance, but is much more solemn and profound. The piece’s multi-facetedness is also reflected by Harrell’s marvellous choice of music, including Antony& the Johnsons, Folk and Soul tunes, electronic beats and pop music. Starting out very slowly, with minimalist gestures and poses, the show gradually takes up speed and contains passages bursting with energy and joy.
The performance manages to capture the delicate process of going from humiliation, suffering and pain to self-determined action; the sudden change in Harrell’s body language from heartbreaking sobbing and shivering to cocky posing is striking. The choreography, which unites voguing with hiphop and break dance elements, conveys the power common to all these subcultural phenomena, the transformation of powerlessness into arrogance and fabulousness via performance. The demonstration of arrogance, confidence and stride dispel all humiliation, pain and isolation the performers encounter in their every day lives and reveals the ability of art and maybe dance in particular to playfully subvert society’s rules and order.
Combining voguing’s ‚realness‘ and early postmodernism’s search for ‚authenticity‘, Harrell gives a fascinating answer to the omnipresent question how the postmodern and thus postironic subject (of dance) can convey a statement, emotion, or anything that goes beyond a blasé shrug of the shoulders. It is not the first time that Harrell addresses the issue of overcoming irony and sarcasm as the main means of expression through his work, his stance is playfully expressed when the three performers chant „Conceptual dance is over!“, making a brilliant reference to the ballroom practice of ‚reading‘ or ‚throwing shade‘.
However, Harrell is serious about overcoming the fear of trying to make authentic, emotional, nonironic statements. The urge to actually generate something (Pomos beware!) meaningful and touching by means of performance and style, while respecting different traditions of dance, seems integral to Harrel’s work. His shaking and crying, as well as his (truly impressive) singing puts him at risk of embarrassment. Only by taking this chance does he manage to achieve the chilling beauty that characterizes the first half of the piece, laying the ground for the exuberance of the latter half. By this he accomplishes to truly convey what voguing, and maybe dance in general, is about: turning human suffering and experience into something that has the power to transform not only the dancer but the world around him/her.