Trajal Harrell's Tanztheater

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday March 22, 2016
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Trajal Harrell dancers Thibault Lac, Ondrej Vidlar,<br>Stephen Thompson, Perle Palombe, Christina Vasileiou, and Camille Durif Bonis<br>performed <i>The Ghost of Montpelier Meets the Samurai</i><br> at Zellerbach Playhouse. Photo: Orpheas Emirzas
Trajal Harrell dancers Thibault Lac, Ondrej Vidlar,
Stephen Thompson, Perle Palombe, Christina Vasileiou, and Camille Durif Bonis
performed The Ghost of Montpelier Meets the Samurai
at Zellerbach Playhouse. Photo: Orpheas Emirzas

March madness is with us in the dance world. Big things are happening everywhere.

In Berkeley, Cal Performances presented the hot New York choreographer Trajal Harrell. He's 39, African-American, queer, from Georgia, a student of bell hooks at Yale, theoretically adept at the 33rd degree, and creates Tanztheater in the voguing idiom. At his show in Zellerbach Playhouse The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai â€" which was nearly sold out several weeks before it opened, so hot was the press â€" they finally got down to voguing after about 30 minutes of prolegomenon. First Harrell rose to speak.

"I am Anna Wintour, editor of American Vogue, " he said in tones that could not have been bettered by Peggy l'Eggs, and read Congress for not funding the arts. Well, needless to say, we loved that.

Soon a willowy â€" and I have never in my life seen so willowy â€" white guy took the microphone and admitted, "I am Trajal Harrell." He began answering the puerile questions asked by the emcee-with-the-French-accent as they perched on a table that looked like it had been borrowed from Project Runway. There was adorable byplay as each tried to find a cushion somewhere to sit their bony bootrays down while the emcee asked "Trajal" mind-crushingly banal questions about what we were about to see, The Ghost of Montpelier and the Samurai, which "Trajal" said was unfortunately not ready to present, and so they would do another piece, Cannes Amour . Et cetera.

What is impressive about Harrell is his insistence on the freedom of the artist to lie. He gets it: they use their imaginations, they tell the truth about the truth. That is what they do. This links him to the Renaissance neo-Platonists, who claimed that "the truest poetry is most feigning" â€" i.e., "all artists lie in order to show you the truth." Plato complained of it; the neo-Platonists approved of it. Oscar Wilde went further and said the best poets steal from the dead.

I think this is what Harrell is up to, but his show was so maddeningly provoking, I'd have to see more. Once the dancing began, the voguing and the costumes they were "walking" looked wonderful. Stephen Thompson stopped his zig-zagging traverse and cut a number of terrifying balances, technically astounding changes of balance, which he could always sustain, while the five other dancers pranced like fillies, high on the balls of their feet, modeling a collection of surprisingly good-looking clothes, since they'd made them all themselves. Monsieur Lac would look good in anything, but he looked especially beautiful in a black thong variously revealed by floating crepe draperies. He was especially fine as the boy in a man-boy duet with Socrates â€" or perhaps it was Telemachus/Mentor â€" that came at the end of the show and seemed to be what we'd been made to wait for. The older man, straight out of Aristotle's Nicomachaean Ethics, who had a white beard and hair and "kept" his face as if he were wearing a mask, was danced by Ondrej Vidlar, who had a soft power in the thigh, and instep and voluptuous rotation at the elbow. They were joined by the "real" Harrell,  who was draped in a purple toga.

The impostures were often ham-handed, the "put-your-hands-together" bullying of the audience in particular. There were times I found myself thinking, "Trisha Brown was truly witty. This is not." And yet, I was glad Cal Performances had brought them. Harrell is a new country heard from, he has a remarkable mind, and though I did not like this, I want to see him again.

San Francisco Ballet dancers in Jerome Robbins' Dances at a Gathering. Photo: Erik Tomasson

ODC/SF opened their winter season downtown, dancing, according to my spies, gloriously. Certainly the glamorous women pictured in their ads look just the way women want to look right now, and I can't wait to see them, but I have not gotten there yet.

Midweek SF Ballet opened a mixed bill at the Opera House with a splashy novelty, Yuri Possokhov's Swimmer, that saved the day after a weak performance of Jerome Robbins' neo-classic Dances at a Gathering where the women simply did not "bring it" to us. Despite the defiant cheers I heard all around me, they sounded like fans of Nureyev's used to, applauding themselves.

Curious thing: Michael Smuin's work was sincere and tasteless in much the same way as Possokhov's Swimmer. Song for a Dead Warrior was no less sincere, no less astute a commentary on the way we live now, and similarly over-the-top; and similarly, San Francisco loved it. He was a better artist than history allows. Possokhov is a truly imaginative man; my taste does not always coincide with his, but no choreographer bats higher than 300. I do not love Swimmer, but most everybody else does. I see it has been nominated for an Izzie Award. Monday night (which as of this filing has not come yet) will tell us if he won.