Trajal Harrell is amazing. His work is so smart that watching it will probably make you live longer, because you can feel the neural pathways lighting up in your brain as it tries to make all the connections quickly enough to follow the parade of thoughts and feelings as they shimmy and sashay through a dense atmosphere of image and sound. And then there is the dancing, which tends to short-circuit thought and take you directly to real meaning. It is exhilarating. Also, Harrell can be very funny, but he may make you cry, too.
I was introduced to the stage art of Trajal Harrell this spring at Carolina Performing Arts, and Harrell’s was among my most anticipated productions at this summer’s American Dance Festival, where Harrell is being co-presented by the ADF and the Nasher Museum of Art.
This show has a crazy long title, but don’t be put off by Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem (Made-to-Measure)/Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (M2M). The more you know about early Post-Modern dance c. 1963 and the Harlem ballroom Voguing style of dance, the more subtleties you will appreciate in the work, which is just one section of a must larger project. But you don’t have to know anything, just pay attention.
You may feel that the work’s first section goes on too long. Almost nothing happens except that a couple of phrases are repeated and repeated and repeated and repeated and repeated and repeated, with jazz-like modulations of tone and inflection. Certainly my mind wandered to my grocery list. But after Harrell declares “conceptual dance is dead!” and the actual dancing springs forth, you realize that the ensuing euphoria required that initial compression.
This is a very high grade of performance art, and guaranteed to be 100% free of the me-me-me virus that infects so much of contemporary dance theatre. It’s not for everyone, but if you are up for a challenge, don’t miss this. And if you sit in the front row, the dancers will come within inches of you. It is fantastic to observe the details of their glorious bodies (Trajal Harrell has the most beautiful feet), and to be–as Harrell asks–a witness to this highly crafted, but unvarnished, truth.
This program repeats July 20 and 21 in Sheafer Theater, lower level of the Duke Bryan Center, at 7: 30 pm. Tickets here.