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Trajal Harrell meshes voguing and postmodern dance into a fierce, high-heeled Greek tragedy

Crédit photo : Trajal Harrell
Trajal Harrell meshes voguing and postmodern dance into a fierce, high-heeled Greek tragedy
The life cycle of countercultural movements rarely ends in a blaze of glory, now does it? Whether it’s rock ‘n’ roll, punk or voguing, the shape-shifting ideas that a marginalized group brings to the fore are usually taken from them – renamed and repackaged without their permission – in the name of mass profit. That’s something New York postmodern dance maven Trajal Harrell has long wrestled with in his rigorous, rhythmical and fiercely political choreographic practice.
Back in 2001, Harrell began wondering about two movement traditions that took shape in 1960s New York, completely independently of each another: the early postmoderns of the Judson Church group in the Lower East Side, and the predominantly African-American and Latino gays, transvestites and transsexuals who gave rise to Harlem’s voguing culture and its competitive balls. Over the last six years, Harrell has been exploring what might have been had these two groups crossed paths, with his eight-part conceptual series, Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church. After giving Festival TransAmériques audiences an exuberant jolt to the senses in 2012 care of (M)imosa, Harrell returns to Montreal to survey dance history and its manifold gender, racial and social identities in his latest work, Antigone Sr., which gets underway tonight at Usine C. 
Recalling his first encounter with voguing, Harrell speaks of being completely caught off guard by the theatricality of the ball. “When I went to my first ball, I found it so much more interesting than a lot of theatre and dance I was seeing at the time,” he tells Nightlife.ca on the line from Athens, his European home base. “The thing that cemented my interest was discovering the history of it, how its development happened around the same time as the early postmodern dance movement. I thought that was really uncanny.”

Hybridized Greek tragedy
In trying to imagine the experience of travelling from Harlem to downtown Manhattan in the 1960s, Harrell began to think about migration in different ways, imagining the runway as an architectural meeting point where these two communities could collide. But the New York iconoclast let his mind wander even further, using classic Greek tragedy and the theatre of antiquity as a framework for this unlikely choreographic clash. For Harrell, the ultimate draw to the story of Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta in Greek mythology, was an opportunity to confront the history of Western drama head-on.
“People tend to think of the Greek theatre as very staid and distilled, but a lot of the newer research coming out shows that it was actually a very carnivalesque atmosphere, very ritualistic. For many of the boys who were performing as women in the Greek theatre, it was also a rite of passage about leaving childhood and becoming a man.” The more Harrell considered the possibilities of staging a play deeply indebted to Ancient Greece, the more parallels to voguing came into view. Greek theatre back then was an all-male operation: men were playing both the female and male parts, lending a kind of performativity to the experience that has nothing to do with modern sexual identities – it wasn’t read as drag, camp or queer the way contemporary audiences would.

Trajal Harrell's Antigone Sr.
What’s more, Harrell saw in the story of Antigone a bold, deeply political work. “Antigone might have been written to get the citizens of Athens to consider the possibility of women having citizenship. Antigone is a warrior character, a princess who speaks directly to the king, at the highest level – a voice that very few men would have at the time, let alone women. She’s allowed to have that voice ultimately because it came from a man playing a woman. This discussion could take place in the theatre because of the performativity – it was allowed to happen because it was a discussion among men. You can see how this performativity was a kind of political activism.”
Ultimately, Harrell issues a friendly disclaimer about Antigone Sr.: it's really the product of his incredibly fertile imagination more than months of extensive research into notions of citizenship in Ancient Greece. Drawing inspiration from icons of pop culture, Dutch architect Rem Koolhaus, sculptor David Hammons and his Bliz-aard Ball Sale (1983), and the rich legacy of two groundbreaking dance movements, Antigone Sr. sees the choreographer thrust centuries of racial, gender and social identities onto his wild catwalk of hybrids. An extravagant, brightly lit homage to the most defiant trailblazers of the stage.
Antigone Sr. (Canadian premiere)
June 2–4 at 8 p.m. | Usine C