The first thing I found at the Barbican Art Gallery after I got my ticket was a scrum of people, over whose shoulders I got a glimpse of Trajal Harrell doing something repetitive and slightly ritualistic with a soup plate and spoon [part of The Return of La Argentina of which more shortly].
I found a slightly better viewpoint but the piece ended shortly afterwards and everyone dispersed, most seeming to know just where to go. I didn’t and ended up with a few others watching a very leisurely solo, It Is Thus, in which a male dancer took vogueing movements and performed them very slowly and evenly with a lot of concentration on the gradual, deep articulation in the transition from one movement to the next. It was all executed in a strangely un-emphatic way, like a vogue version of Trio A.
Harrell’s now well known starting point for all his choreography was the question, what would have happened if voguers from the drag balls in Harlem had performed at Judson Memorial Church alongside members of the Judson group. I’ve been looking on line at interviews with Harrell who often points out that he’s not a voguer but someone who was educated within the Judson tradition which he think of in terms of minimalism and repetition. Minimalist vogueing like It Is Thus is a way of saying no to, and moving on from Rainer’s iconic pronouncement ‘no to spectacle’.
Some people stayed for a bit of It is thus and then walked away. In performative exhibitions like Hoochie Koochie this always seems to me to be in bad faith. If someone is concentrating on dancing like that – in a rehearsal or live – I feel I must give them my attention. But in an art gallery, one stays as long or as briefly as one likes in front of a painting and then moves on. That’s what people often seem to do with dance works in performative exhibitions. It must be hard for the dancers. But, on the other hand, I noticed here and elsewhere that people don’t seem to pay any attention to any artworks or projections on the wall or any sculptural pieces displayed alongside the performative elements. No one seems interested in the inanimate stuff, but are continually alert, keen not to miss anything live that’s happening.
What I’m describing here is the behaviour of twenty-first century consumerism. As markets get saturated with things to buy, they start selling us experiences instead, manipulating our desire for something new and different. And art galleries and museums are following or responding to this by exhibiting immaterial art, like Harrell’s Hoochie Koochie. They’re doing what the market does, which is to capture excess surplus value. And, to be honest, we all recognise now that’s what always happened. That’s a key difference between the counterculture in the 1960s, of which the Judson group were a part, and the art scene today. People have no illusions any more about the possibility of escaping capture. The question is, while they are following and responding to the consumerist modus operandi, are they maybe also on another level doing something else that might not be entirely capturable?
When Jennie Livingstone’s film Paris Is Burning was first released in 1990 and was immediately ‘the’ thing that ‘everybody’ wanted to talk about, Paris Dupree – whose balls are referred to in the film’s title – and others who appeared in the film, suddenly felt ripped off. They’d let this white Jewish lesbian from Yale into the balls, performed for her and let her interview them for nothing. What they had been doing had been captured through vogue’s suddenly fashionable exploitation by Madonna and the big international music corporations. In 2017 we are all always already captured all of the time. Our data is mined by Google and Facebook and the other mega-rich tech corporations, and our personal communications harvested on an industrial scale in the name of the security of our homelands. To attempt to avoid capture is to run the risk of attracting the wrong kind of attention. What some of us need to understand better is how to pass.
[still from Paris Is Burning]
I’ve been showing extracts from Livingston’s wonderful film to my wonderful undergraduate students more or less every year since the early 1990s. The ball walkers documented in it knew all about passing. As gay men and transsexuals, the film makes clear, the ability to pass can be a life-saving skill outside the safe community of the balls. There is an element within this skill that is fundamental to theatrical self-presentation in general – an ability to make the audience see what it is you are presenting to them in the way you want to be seen.
If it is unlikely that any of the black or Latino drag queens ever attended any of the concerts of dance at Judson Church, it is possible that the gay performance artist and underground filmmaker Jack Smith might have done. And some of the dancers from the church and some of their audience probably went to see the fabulously outrageous and shambolic performances that he put on in his downtown loft a few blocks south of the church.
[Jack Smith. still from Normal Love.]
Smith knew about passing. His essay on the 1940s Hollywood B starlet Maria Montez begins:
At least in American a Maria Montez could believe she was the Cobra woman, the Siren of Atlantis, Scheherazade etc. She believed and thereby made the people who went to her movies believe. Those who could believe, did. Those who saw the World’s Worst Actress just couldn’t and missed the magic.
Passing is about making the spectator believe in magic. Some of the pieces I saw in the time I was able to spend in Hoochie Koochie didn’t use any obvious vogueing movements but drew on the kinds of expressive modern dance movement vocabulary that Rainer, Paxton and their fellow avant-gardists reacted against. Harrell seemed to me to use these modern movements in an unrelieved minimalist way inflected with a butoh-like intensity. I’m thinking of Creon’s Solo and one or two other of Harrell’s Greek pieces. Again it seemed that people would watch for a bit and then leave in the middle. You could say that, here as elsewhere, I believed in what the dancer wanted me to believe while others, who lost interest and moved on, couldn’t, and missed the magic.
As I said earlier, when I entered the gallery, Harrell was in the middle of his solo The Return of La Argentina, one of his many references to dance history in general and Butoh in particular. I was lucky enough to see Kazuo Ohno performing a series of short solos, together with other solos danced by his son Yoshito, at the Japan Society in New York in December 1999. Kazuo was then 93. Yoshito was 61 and lurked in the wings while his father danced, rushing out at one moment when his father stumbled and seemed about to fall. The father’s entire performance was extremely shaky, including the extract he showed us from the signature work about La Argentina that Tatsumi Hijikata made for him. This drew on Ohno’s memories of seeing her perform in 1926. He was 20, she was 36. As with Maria Montez, Kazuo Ohno believed and thereby made the people in the auditorium at the Japan Society believe that the fingers and wrists and legs of this 93 year old man were not shaking uncontrollably but performing the movements of a young Spanish star at the height of her fame dancing with joy.
[Kazuo Ohno in Remembering La Argentina. photo: Emídio Luisi]
Kazuo Ohno was wearing a white hat with faded flowers in it and a white lace dress, all rather distressed. Harrell, in his solo, was wearing shorts and t-shirt and holding a dress (that I later read was by the legendary Japanese couturier Reu Kawakubo). The dancers at Paris Dupree’s balls who competed in the high fashion categories were supposed to have ‘mopped’ their designer frocks. I don’t know if Jack Smith is one of Harrell’s points of reference but parts of his solo seemed to me more Smith than Ohno. But that’s not quite fair. It could be both, just as the 93 year old Japanese man could be himself and a younger woman and somehow, magically, make you believe in the joy he still shared with someone he had seen 73 years previously. Harrell too, in one section of this solo, seemed to project joy.
[Trajal Harrell in The Return of La Argentina. photo: Tristan Fewings, Getty images]
I was fascinated by Hoochie Koochie and stayed as long as I could before I had to rush to catch my train for the long journey back to North Yorkshire. I now realise there were longer, more recent pieces and older acclaimed ones in the exhibition that I missed. However from what I did see, it was great to see this kind of conceptually intriguing work danced by such strong, skilled and sophisticated dancers. And when I got home I went to the bookcase. That is what a lot of the interviews with Harrell and reviews of his work almost encourage one to do. So I found my copy of Jack Smith’s writings and also something by Judith Butler. Not her well known essay ‘Gender Is Burning’ about Livingston’s film, but, to check out something about Harrell’s Greek pieces, Butler’s lectures about the first of Sophocles’ Theban plays reprinted in Antigone’s Claim.
To make my point, I need now to make a brief digression into the story of Antigone. She was one of Oedpius and Jocasta’s children along with her sister Ismene and her brothers Polynices and Eteocles. After Oedipus realised he’d committed incest by unknowingly having children with his own mother, he blinded himself and left Thebes. Polynices and Eteocles succeeded him to the throne, agreeing to each be the king for half the year. But when Eteocles’ six months were up, he refused to let his brother take over. Polynices went off, came back with an army, and, in the ensuing battle, both brothers were killed. The new king Creon – Jocasta’s brother – decreed a law that, because Polynices was an enemy of Thebes, no one should bury him on pain of death. Antigone promptly scattered soil on her brother’s body and then admitted to Creon that she’d done so and thus had broken his law. It was, she said, the law of the gods to respect the dead and bury them. After this, you know it is going to end badly. And here’s the thing I was trying to remember after I saw Harrell’s Greek pieces. In Sophocles’ play, Creon announces ‘No woman is going to lord it over me’ and later adds ‘I am not the man, not now; she [Antigone] is the man if this victory goes to her and she goes free’.
Here’s Judith Butler’s commentary on these lines.
Antigone comes, then, to act in ways that are called manly not only because she acts in defiance of the law but also because she assumes the voice of the law in committing the act against the law. … [Creon] expects that his word will govern her deeds, and she speaks back to him, countering his sovereign speech act by asserting her own sovereignty.
Creon’s performative speech is to make the law by announcing it. Antigone asserts her own sovereignty by the performative act of scattering soil over her brother’s body. I’ve already mentioned Creon’s solo which I saw in the ‘Solos and Duets’ corner of the gallery. Another piece I saw there, Wall Dance from the evening length piece Antigone Jr, was based on the dialogiue between Antigone and her sister Ismene at the opening of Sophocles’ play. Rereading Butler reminded me of the ways in which Antigone and Creon trouble gender norms – Antigone acting like a male, sovereign law-maker, and Creon as someone feminised by her defiance.
[Creon’s Solo. photo: Tristan Fewings, Getty images]
There is a lot of gender troubling in Harrell’s work. To be clear, I’m not arguing that these are queer pieces, but pointing out how they problematize heteronormativity. There are the men dancing material drawn from the ball walkers who were performing like women on the runway of a fashion show. Then there is Harrell dancing with a Japanese designer dress, citing a solo by an old Japanese man who was dancing the role of a young woman. It is a generally accepted convention in some Japanese theatre forms that experienced male actors perform female roles. In an interview, Harrell points out that, in the Greek theatre of Sophocles’ era, men played female roles. So the role of Antigone would have been played by a man, as it is in Harrell’s Wall Dance.
Wall Dance is probably the piece I most enjoyed in the exhibition. It consists of two men walking rhythmically back and forth, one a few paces behind the other, along a horizontal track in front of a wall. Occasionally one would make a vogue gesture and the other might respond. From time to time, without missing a beat they somehow manage deftly to change so that they walk towards each other but turn before they meet. In the play, Antigone asks Ismene to help her bury their brother’s corpse and Ismene in effect tells her she’s crazy. I saw Wall Dance performed twice while I was at the Barbican and it seemed to me to be partly improvised around a tight structure. Mostly they just walk, quite minimalist, but it is somehow also electric. It is a sort of battle with each intensely aware of what the other is doing, braced to respond gesture for gesture, inflection with inflection.
[Wall Dance. photo: Tristan Fewings, Getty images]
Reading the notes afterwards I found that Harrell was also thinking of the duet in the film version of de Keersmaeker’s Fase where the two women also perform a minimalist stepping sequence repetitively while going back and forth along a horizontal track in front of a wall. The more I find out about Harrell’s work, the more I appreciate his dance literacy – the range of references on which he draws and the smart, ironic but convincing and sometimes moving uses he makes of them.
I’ve talked a lot about the identity politics in Harrell’s work because that’s something I’m always interested in. But I don’t want to imply that that is what his work is all about. There is an inclusive diversity in Hoochie Koochie that hints at a transnational circulation of cultural values. One last example: Harrell has been working on material about Dominique Bagouet, the much loved Cunninghamesque French choreographer who sadly died of AIDs related illness in 1992. But Harrell is learning French and is only working with information about Bagouet that people tell him in French. (Félicitations! quelle bonne idée!) What, Harrell asks in Ghost Trio, might have happened if Bagouet had met Hijikata late one night in a New York bar?
There is a need to embrace diversity on this international scale and be open to wider frames of reference about planetary needs. Hoochie Koochie offers spaces for looking outside our usual frames of reference by making us believe in the expanded range of possibilities that the dancers offer, and see the magic.