New York performer Trajal Harrell’s “Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church” is a series of performances exploring the hypothetical question: what if Harlem’s gay vogueing ball scene had travelled downtown to collide with the postmodern dance scene centered at Judson Church in the ‘60s. Thanks to Madonna’s tribute to/appropriation of the ball scene in the song “Vogue,” we’re all somewhat familiar with it. But what, do you ask, is the post-modern dance scene at Judson Church?

Reacting to the strictures and pretense of modern dance, the dancers at Judson eschewed virtuosity, spectacle, and emotion (basically the things that make dance pretty) for pedestrian, every day movement. Or, to quote a dance professor I spoke with in the beer garden after the show, "the stereotype of Judson Church is white people not dancing.”   

Trajal Harrell: Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem (Made-to-Measure)
Con-Way
Sat, Sept 14 at 8:30
Which is something you need to know going into Harrell’s Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem (Made-to-Measure) or M2M, the only piece in the series that imagines Judson Church going uptown to Harlem. The beginning is long and uncomfortable. Spotlights shine in the audience’s eyes, Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain” blares out of the speakers, and the three dancers sit in chairs and do next to nothing. The two white dancers sit stoically, one repeating only the command, “Don’t stop;” Harrell trembles violently on the verge of sobbing; and the puzzlement and frustration of the audience grows palpable. Whereas Campo/Pieter Ampe and Guilherme Garrido's show seemed a test of physical endurance for the performers, M2M starts to feel a test for the audience.

Trajal Harrell: Antigone Jr.
Con-Way
Sun, Sept 15 at 6

Slowly (ever so slowly) the music begins to shift, first to Anthony and the Johnsons and then Gillian Welch—but always songs of a loss that yearn for love. And with the shift, cracks of emotion start to break through the white dancers, the command “Don’t stop” shifting to the encouragement “Don’t stop the dance.”

And then the dam breaks, the emotion that was barred by Judson erupts, and the dance rushes forth in a deluge. Runway, vogue, hip hop, and breakdance. French performer Thibault Lac is an atom bomb. When he starts voguing, he detonates into a frenetic storm of arms spinning like electrons. (If he lets loose at tonight’s Critical Mascara Drag Ball, he will leave a dance floor of broken queens in his wake.) And an audience close to nodding off minutes before is suddenly bouncing in its seats.

At one point, Harrell yells, “Conceptual dance is over,” but this piece is soaked in concept so thick that, at points, it becomes unwieldy and fails to make a visceral impact. None of these dancers, including Harrell, come from the ball scene, so like Judson would be, they are all appropriating the dance, with all the racial underpinnings that comes with it. But they also seem to find release and fulfillment in the emotional ecstasy—like it’s the love the songs are calling for.

M2M is a challenging piece that doesn’t make for an easy journey, but ultimately getting to watch them learn to werk it is worth the struggle.

Harrell and Lac will perform another part of the series, Antigone Jr., on Sunday, Sept. 15 at 6 p.m.

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