Looking at identity’s clothing
In his notes, Trajal Harrell poses, “What would have happened in 1963 if someone from the voguing ball scene in Harlem had come downtown to perform at Judson Church with the early postmodern choreographers?’’
The New York-based dancer-choreographer answers with the strange but intriguing “Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church (S).’’ The solo work comes in five sizes, XS to XL. At the Institute of Contemporary Art Saturday night, a co-collaboration with Summer Stages Dance at Concord Academy, he presented the hourlong “small’’ version, which seemed just about right.
“Twenty Looks’’ unfolds as a kind of low-tech avant garde fashion parade with all the seams showing, Ralph Lauren meets Yvonne Rainer. The stage is set with a black strip of runway with seating on three sides. Harrell has a variety of clothing and shoes laid out neatly on six upstage chairs, and he changes into his different stylistic “looks’’ before our eyes. But Harrell’s deconstruction isn’t so much about what we wear as how we wear it, how it makes us feel, and how others perceive us. As we watch him transform into different personae, we start to ponder the nature of identity, sexuality, and cultural assumptions.
The first few “looks’’ roll by with no music, just standing. It’s mostly attitude that differentiates the East and West Coast “Preppy School Boy.’’ But by “look’’ number six, “Sporty Contemporary With a Twist,’’ Harrell and the music are rocking. He darts about with a jerky little kick dance. “Serving Old School Runway’’ pairs high-tops with an apron, and Harrell rides his swiveling hips with swirling arms and traces of fatigue and disdain on his face. In “Serving Superhero,’’ the apron becomes a cape.
The only time Harrell actually works the runway is in “Runway Performance With Face and Effects.’’ Decked out in black and sunshine yellow, he moves forward and back. As the music shifts quickly, ranging from pop to electronica, each change catapults him into a different “look.’’ In the carriage of the body, the pace of the walk, subtle rhythmic inflections, he moves from cool, sly seducer to tightly wired parvenu.
Halfway through the work, the music stops and Harrell presents just himself in baggy T-shirt and mottled green underpants. He slowly shifts his weight from foot to foot, a kind of passive-aggressive challenge: Who do we think he is, after all? Then he unleashes “looks’’ that get gradually darker and more vulnerable. In “Legendary Face,’’ he shields his face with trembling hands, a fading rock star in sunglasses coming off the D.T.’s. By the ending “Alt-Moderne Feeling the French Lieutenant’s Woman,’’ he reaches out, the beseeching supplicant. As he dons a gray-hooded shirt, anxiety and pain pinch his features. His body folds in on itself as the lights dim.
Karen Campell can be reached at email@example.com.