Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church is a performance in seven parts, or “sizes," presented over the course of a week at the Kitchen. Each unique event explores Harrell’s question “What would have happened in 1963 if someone from the voguing ballroom scene in Harlem had come downtown to perform alongside the early postmoderns at Judson Church?” The series takes its title in part from the 1990 Jennie Livingston documentary Paris is Burning, which was largely responsible for introducing the underground voguing ball culture of working-class gay black and Latino nightclubs in Harlem during the 1970s and '80s to a broader audience. The contrast between this extravagant culture of fashion and celebrity and the elimination of spectacle from performance of the Judson Dance Theater, located a just few miles south of Harlem in Washington Square, is Harrell’s unchartered geography to explore.
The series begins with XS, a brief performance and an introduction of sorts to the rest of the sizes. The intimate show, limited to an audience of only 25, begins upon the audience entering the theater. Harell establishes a relationship with each viewer by greeting everyone at the door, introducing himself and shakes everyone’s hand. He invites his audience to take their seats on the black-box theater floor—encouraging them to be comfortable, to relax, to lie down. This simple set of instructions in itself is in homage to the Judson Theater’s evaporation of the proscenium stage, a core aspect to the work of the early postmodern dancers from which Harrell draws his inspiration. Once inside the theater, it is difficult to determine a moment at which the performance actually begins, as Harrell takes a seat on the floor near the small group and provides some background on the work. He also provides the audience with a cue: “When I make this sign, the performance is over.” Harrell makes a slated "T" with his arms.
After explaining the thesis behind the work, Harrell disappears behind a black curtain and retrieves prepared reading packets containing a statement and selected reference texts as background. Integrating the didactic into the performance itself, Harrell encourages his audience to "take their time, to read." As the audience turned their attention to the texts, Harrell was able to slip out of view and disappear behind the curtain at the far end of the theater. Harrell employs this subtle shift in focus, he fills the void of his physical presence in the space with this moment of engagement with the text. As opposed to being a distraction, the moment, in retrospect, is an expansion of the performance beyond watching the performer. When the artist re-appears this time dressed in a red kimono and carrying four red tap lights we view his actions against the texts’ context. Harrell silently places the lights on the floor—he creates a mood, initiating the performance into another chapter. He has transformed from another body in the space to a performer.
As a study in intimacy, Harrell draws attention to the idea of ocularity, the idea of looking and being looked at. Harrell confesses to his nervousness of being watched: The original performances of XS, with an audience of 50, was admittedly "disastrous"— 50 people equals 100 eyes. Even with a smaller group, one could feel Harrell’s nerves, even insecurity during some moments; one feels that he knows no more about the work’s eventual outcome than the audience does. Yvonne Rainer, who articulated her conflicted feelings about being watched as a performer, developed a style in which she avoided eye contact with her audience, seeking to become an object in space rather than engaging with an emotional relationship with those watching her, while vogue performers sought out the gaze of others, relying on a Warholian celebrity worship. Harlem ball performances mimicked fashion runways in their quest for empowerment through receiving attention from their peers.
While constantly engaging with these disparate histories, the work refrains from falling into a revisionist history of dance in historic New York; Harrell instead footnotes elements from both the expressionistic, pop-enthused performance of Harlem voguing and the pedestrian movement of early postmodern dance as performed at Judson Church in a contemporary and subtle study. The result could not have been performed by either set of dancers; instead Harrell muses on these differences and similarities. In providing reading for his audience, the performance becomes, as in reading, a personal dialogue with an existing history.
Harrell’s series of costume changes (three in 30 minutes) prevents the formation of a single character. Seeking visibility while simultaneously keeping his individuality in flux, Harell dances against the modest red lights, his choreography at once expressionistic and quotidian. As a song (which was played on a iPod in a case with bunny ears in the center of the floor) comes to an end, Harrell makes the "T" formation with his arms—the performance is over. Like a model on a catwalk, Harrell turns and walks back slowly, disappearing behind the curtain. When he disappears and the theater is silent, the performance continues. "Go home and read it!" Harell encouraged his audience upon handing out his printed matter. “That too is part of the piece."
Trajal Harrell performs Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning: jr.++ at The Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York on January 11, 2015. He presents In one step are a thousand animals at The Museum of Modern Art in New York until January 15, ending with a conversation with Eiko Otake and Sam Miller on January 15.