Meredith Benjamin

“What would have happened in 1963 if someone from the voguing ball scene in Harlem had come downtown to perform alongside the early postmoderns at Judson Church?” This is the provocative question that choreographer Trajal Harrell asks in his Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church project, which comes in cheekily-labeled “sizes” (XS), (S), (M), (jr.), (L), and (M2M), as well as a forthcoming publication (XL).  The latest, and final, performance in the series is entitled Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem (Made-to-Measure)/Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church (M2M) and differs from the previous iterations in that it inverts the proposition, asking instead what would have happened if the postmoderns went uptown to Harlem. This final performance was presented by Danspace as part of “Platform 2012: Judson Now,” a 10 week series which presents work with ties to the pioneering postmodern dance performed at the Judson Memorial Church beginning in 1962. 

The Judson Dance Theatre emerged as part of the avant-garde scene in 1960’s Greenwich Village. Its original impetus came from a dance composition class taught by Robert Dunn, a musician who had studied with John Cage. Judson’s legacy, which today we term postmodern dance, involved challenging the conventions of earlier modern dance in a number of ways, including an emphasis on improvisation, integrating “natural” or everyday movements, using “non-dancers” in their pieces, allowing the performers to speak, rejecting theatricality, and generally questioning the definition of dance. Among the choreographers to emerge from the Judson scene were Yvonne Rainer, Meredith Monk, Steve Paxton, Lucinda Childs, David Gordon, Trisha Brown, and Carolee Schneeman. 

These artists who worked as part of Judson were primarily (particularly in the early years) white. Harrell’s argument however, is less about the racial makeup of that original group and more about the racialized way that we have come to think of and value the dance forms of that era. He questions the hierarchies and lineages that have come to be accepted as part of dance tradition, and asks why we can’t consider voguing, which developed around the same time as the Judson’s version of postmodernism, as an equally valuable and important influence for contemporary dance today. With his imaginative conceit, he challenges the idea that conceptual or postmodern dance is somehow “white” and existed in a vacuum. 

Like the collective it looks back on with this series, the presenting organization Danspace Project is housed in a church: in this instance, St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery. Performances are held in the main sanctuary space, which brings to mind an old New England church, with its austere whiteness, simple altar, and balconies. To begin, performer Thibault Lac strode into the center of this space and gave us a brief synopsis of the Twenty Looks series, as well as the background on this particular performance, more or less reciting the program notes. He then strode off, to a round of applause. He cut this applause short however, returning to say, “So, that was one way to begin. Forget everything you just heard, we’re going to try an alternate way.” Questioning the notion of when a piece actually begins is not uncommon in contemporary performance. But what was the point here? It was as if Harrell wanted to be sure that his audience had the context for the work, emphasizing the necessity of understanding its premise, but simultaneously did not want to come off as didactic, or as prescribing a certain interpretation. 

Lac exited the stage area again, and we were confronted with this “alternate” start: Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain” filled the space at full volume. We sat there, staring into the emptiness of the space, waiting for something to happen. Finally, Lac walked impassively across the stage, now dressed in a diaphanous black gown, gathered at the waist (the costumes were by Complexgeometries), and took a seat on one of two folding chairs. Harrell soon followed, seemingly contorted by pain. The bodice of his dress resembled a shawl, and as he took his seat he evoked a shriveled old woman, suffering visibly throughout the song.

Later, a third man, Ondrej Vidlar, joined Harrell and Lac, and began repeating, at first quietly, “Don’t stop.” This repetition, which continued to the point of irritation and was eventually picked up by the other performers, varied in tone from encouraging, to irritated, to angry, to bored. The only other action onstage consisted of a few restrained movements, the dancers never engaging directly with each other. The frustrating restraint of this section makes clear the Judson influence. Rainer, one of the most prominent Judson alumni, penned the pioneering “No Manifesto” in which she rejected a number of dance conventions, saying “no” to virtuosity, spectacle, and moving or being moved, among other things.

And yet, Harrell simultaneously flies in the face of this credo, evoking glamour, spectacle, and camp, and engaging in over-the-top emotionalism. After Adele, the soundtrack featured a number of other popular songs from various eras and styles, many of which engage in unabashed sentimentalism or drama (unfortunately, the music was not identified or credited in the program). After watching the three performers do little more than sing along while sitting in their chairs for at least twenty or thirty minutes, Harrell suddenly swelled upright with a look of intensity and a puffed-up chest. The bright lights dimmed and he struck a pose, his gaze defiantly confronting the audience. The mood onstage changed dramatically, and the three performers took turns voguing, strutting and twirling down an imagined catwalk, and finally, breaking it down. These exuberant performances broke the tension built up in the excruciatingly restrained first half of the piece. The instructions hurled at each other changed from “don’t stop” to “Don’t think! Work!” and “Conceptual dance is over!” which drew a round of laughs from the in-the-know audience. The dancing became more and more frenzied and fervent, and the exhortations gospel-like, with Harrell yelling “Can I get a witness? Testify!” Eventually the fervor wound down, and the dancers returned to their original places: Lac swaying in place, Harrell making an impassioned lament (“I am intense, I am in need, I am in pain, I am in love…”), and Vidlar continuing to remind them “don’t stop.”

So what did this performance tell us about what might have happened if the Judson dancers had gone up to Harlem? Harrell reminds us in the program notes (as Lac did in the “false” beginning) that we are not to take this premise literally: his intention is not to “illustrate a historical fiction,” but rather to bring into conversation artistic movements and styles that we do not normally consider together, despite their proximity, chronologically and spatially. He does so in M2M by juxtaposing the restraint and repetition (“don’t stop”) characteristic of postmodern dance with the emotionalism of popular music, later re-purposing this dispassionate repetition as the type of raucous communal encouragement one might find at a voguing ball. Harrell’s critique is less about the early Judsonites being racist or exclusive and more about the isolated ways in which we now think about those histories and trajectories.

In resisting the temptation to represent a historical fiction, there is never the clear implication that Harrell (the only dancer of color) is the dancer from Harlem, or that Lac and Vidlar are the visitors from Judson. By not having individual dancers represent specific traditions, Harrell questions the idea that these movement styles and philosophies were entirely discrete or specific to certain bodies, instead imagining elements of each as embodied by the same person. Racially-inflected elements of song or movement become ambiguous or unclassifiable as they are placed in new contexts. By evoking and re-contextualizing the historically-laden traditions of voguing and postmodern dance, and blurring the lines of traditions often thought of as racially-specific, Harrell imagines new possibilities in which these lineages intertwine.

Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem (Made-to-Measure)/Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church (M2M). Choreography by Trajal Harrell presented by Danspace Project, October 11th, 2012.

Photo courtesy © Ondreg Vidlar

Meredith Benjamin is currently pursuing her PhD in English, with a certificate in Women's Studies, at the CUNY Graduate Center. She teaches writing at Baruch College and writes about dance for the GC Advocate, as well as on her blog, A Spy in the House of Dance.