Biking in the crisp autumn from ne forty-second down to the river, across the Broadway bridge, to plunge into my first attempt to navigate the new bike lanes recently carved into the Pearl, I arrived at the performance of Trajel Harrell’s Made to Measure a bit sweaty. Things becoming sweaty were to become a theme of the evening, as I was vaguely but pleasantly aware. Finding inexplicably the last seat in the front row of a packed house, the power of the passholder became apparent. A shame I work nights and hadn’t anticipated getting into more than one event.
A casual conversation ensues with the woman next to me about dance performances in Portland, as often happens when one is friendly and sweaty. I describe some of the collaborations between improvising musicians and dancers I have seen, and been involved with myself in the context of the Creative Music Guild , particularly more recently through events curated through the Outset Series. Of course it turned out that Leah, the dancer I collaborated with in said series, was sitting right behind me the whole show. A typical moment in a small circle. I am always running into people I knew at T:BA, either as volunteers or attendants, and these people are often from circles far removed from each other. It’s interesting how events like this bring out denizens of all the different weird music and art cliques, usually anchored to particular sets of persona or locale, who usually move past and around each other in a state of semi-permeability.
Three chairs (well, actually two chairs and a piano bench) are on stage. Below them are microphones, and sets of sneakers. Earlier today in his artist talk he responded to a question about some people walking out during the show because the beginning wasn’t what they were expecting, and that maybe it was little excruciating. Being versed in some extreme performance art, particularly that which challenges the audience in comfort or expectation, I was interested to see what this was all about. Three figures walk out stage right, wearing grey garb reminiscent of the images we have left of ancient Greece. The triangles apex is occupied by Trajel, wearing a tragic mask of nameless sorrow. The two other dancers, which in honor of the stereotype devouring/destroying/inhabiting mob of homosexuals which will soon engulf the Con-Way I will name the Otter and the Hunky Twink, occupy the closer positions of the triangle. The Otter is closest to me on the piano bench. It seems as the performance goes on they have Germanic or Eastern European sounding accents.
In the empty stage before their arrival a dancefloor remix of an Adele song pounded to an empty stage and anticipating audience. At its end (which took its time) the dancers emerged. A slow piano motif began. There is a unified statement, in the form of an epic drama, but that will be it. Trajan says “I hear the souls of old black people here”, and then begins intoning in a tragic voice certain things I recognize off the radio but can’t quite place. Is that a Jay-Z song? Kanye? He lists off the names of places around the world originally intended to be a litany of successful shows.. stadiums conquered, but seem now like some nameless tale of woe and dread. The immediate effect, as perverse as I am, is hilarious. I begin laughing uncontrollably. Even more so realizing this is probably going completely over the head of many of these theater goers. I think it makes people close to me uncomfortable, still wondering when they were going to see some dancing. The songs are hard to recognize out of their original context, and these people would be waiting for a while.
Voices come piped in over the speaker. Some are samples of pop songs, some are recognizable songs sung in a different tempo and register by Trajal, or perhaps Hunky Twink, who proves to have quite a set of pipes. Some may be compositions of the choreographer. Its hard to tell. Otter says in a monotone “Don’t stop.. don’t stop the dance.” This is repeated for so long my ability to register time is broken. What reveals itself to be a long form abstract vocal piece unfolds, with Trajal and Hunky Twink taking leads but remaining still motionless. This is beautiful, still, static but uplifting. An inhibited not ecstatic path to the sacred, but still reflects this sense to the patient and open viewer. Again, this lasts for a long time. And as yet there still is no dancing, save for a brief ghostly moment when Trajal briefly stands and executes a few slow expressive ‘vogueish’ movements in almost a off-time slither. The long wait and intense build up have had their intended effect: a dream-like aura to his motion, as if I was watching a piece of flickering old film spinning on the metal wheels of projectors long since doomed to extinction.
And one point a slow crescendo builds, and the three men stand facing each other, arms raised in a cross, and began moving in a slow circle. In the talk earlier this point was mentioned by the moderator and she said she felt the presence of ‘Christ’. I wouldn’t go so far, but effect was startling.
At some point that is impossible to recall everything changes. The dancers start getting down. Sneakers come on and music moves uptempo. Following each others center much like the natural flow of people following another on the dancefloor, the triangle of dancers moved around the stage displaying considerable moves. As one would expect from professionals. We can then see the connection to vogueing and the style of dance/presentation profiled in Paris is Burning, screen earlier that day, taken out of any idea of connection to audience and attempt at entrancement or glamour. But there is no story. No narrative concluded. When Hunky Twink pulls up his smock to tuck into front his boxer shorts to display his deep hip-hop styles the effect is neither sexy or grotesque. It is simply a body in space, bringing forth to bear all its resources in the trained creation of significance in its movements, and the simultaneous effort to remove the movement from this significance. A strange collision, but I found it compelling.
D. Todd Dickerson
TO BE CONTINUED…. a tale of food, drag, appropriation, and awkwardness.