Trajal Harrell, Kyle Abraham and Half Straddle

Wednesday night took us to The Kitchen to see (M)IMOSA aka Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church. Created in choreographic collaboration with Cecilia Bengolea, Fran├žois Chaignaud, and Marlene Freitas it was an experiment in choreographic chaos that was alternately fascinating and frustrating.

As the title suggests, Harrell is exploring a mash-up of vogueing/fashion movement vocabulary and iconography with the aesthetics of Judson. He offers up his project in various sizes and different incarnations. I’ve only ever seen this piece, so my write-up may be a little decontextualized.

Some of the people I spoke to LOVED this piece – they felt that it was just fun and playful and exuberant and a breath of fresh air. I have to say that I had a different reaction. I found it complicated and kind of difficult.

I’m not going to do a sequence-by-sequence breakdown I just want to share some overall impressions. Harrell creates a kind of distracted aesthetic – he is seated in the audience as the show begins, rifling through costumes. The performers come in and out of the audience when others are onstage, diverting your attention from the main event. It feels a bit like a rehearsal or, more appropriately, a fashion show where the backstage workings are made visible to the audience. Costume changes happen in the seats and performers chat amongst themselves.

Each artist would come out and claim the identity of Mimosa Ferrara – an imagined ubiquitous pop star who would be incarnated in different ways. Sometimes a boozy chanteuse, sometimes looking like Prince, sometimes Trajal in a wig.

One of the most successful elements of the show was the gender play – at different times different types of drag were employed to suggest the mutability of gender and identity. I found that fascinating. But just as often as it was fascinating Harrell and Co. employed overlapping musical cues and simultaneous action that became frustrating. The dissonance of competing stimuli created a kind of sensory overload that short-circuited my attention span. Some people expressed to me that they thought it was a comic romp whereas I found it alienating.

The performers were all energetic and engaging and each had a kind of “signature” number that they did during the show. It was fun to get to know these personas – and some of the personas they put on were quite entertaining. But as the evening went on and the imaginary Mimosa Ferrara came back again and again in new disguises I started to get worn out.

Ultimately this was a big, ideologically expansive, sprawling work that was ambitious and challenging. I would like to see more of Trajal’s other pieces so I could understand how this fits into his overarching exploration of fashion, identity, politics and aesthetics.

In stark contrast to the sprawling, conceptual (M)mimosa was the evening of bite-sized dance morsels that was Kyle Abraham and Friends’ Heartbreak and Homies< at Joe’s Pub. This Valentine’s Day sampler pack of song-length dances produced by DanceNOW[NYC] was easy on the eyes and good fun all around.

Abraham solicited song suggestions on Facebook, selected his favorites and choreographed dances to them. He also invited choreographers David Dorfman, Faye Driscoll and Alex Escalante to share work in the evening.

The night started off with three short, intertwined solos from Abraham that showcased his precision, wit and lithe athleticism – characteristics that were on display throughout the evening. All of Abraham’s dancers – Chalvar Montiero, Christopher Nolan,
Rachelle Rafailedes, Hsiao-Jou Tang and Elyse Morris – were excellent. Apart from just being beautiful dancers, they brought a sense of playful sensuality to the proceedings whether portraying lust, heartbreak or romance. Abraham references “urban” movement vocabularies but with a light touch, blending the abstract and the earthy to create dances that are hypnotic and emotionally resonant.

The evening’s guest artists were equally compelling – David Dorman’s duet to “That Kind of Person” by Sly and the Family Stone – danced by Jenna RIegel and Raja Feather Kelly – was as engaging and entertaining. I think Abraham has danced with Dorfman and so maybe the explains the aesthetic compatibility. Then Faye Driscoll and Jesse Zarritt showed an excerpt of their new work-in-progress. Alex Escalante offered up a surreally funny break-up using a loop pedal to create dialogue on top of a music track.

To end the evening Abraham returned to the stage for a short solo that reprised the themes he outlined in the beginning.

I have to say I really like the format of the show and was surprised by how much variety and dynamics the choreographers could find in this short form. Each dance was unique and compelling and the evening in total was connected and resonant. I guess its hard to go wrong with a universal theme like Valentine’s Day, but it would have been easy to be sappy or cynical or veer into the uncomfortably confessional. But the evening stayed on the rails, balancing poignancy and humor with great dancing and music. Good times, good times.

Saturday night took us to Bushwick Starr to see Half Straddle’s newest offering, In The Pony Palace/FOOTBALL. Now that I’ve seen two of their works and a cabaret evening of songs, I’m starting to get a better sense of what Tina Satter and friends are going for. FOOTBALL is a much stronger outing than NURSES OF NEW ENGLAND – it is tighter and more focused, more well-formed, relying less on situational humor and highlighting Satter’s poetic writing.

Basically the show is a kind of dream-y mishmash of fantasy of the social milieu surrounding a girl’s high school football team – complete with a butch lesbian assistant coach, an Owl mascot and two deceptively ditzy cheerleaders. The show follows the group through a season with its wins and losses, shifting allegiances within the team social order, crushes and more. Always entertaining and frequently funny, we are sucked into a weird little world of an imaginary high school that uses poeticized and abstracted teen vernacular to reveal the roiling turmoil of adolescent hormones and emotions. Its that time of your life where everything feels like a big deal yet we are required to pretend like nothing matters. Or something like that.

I enjoyed the piece as a whole but I still feel like Satter and friends are working their way towards something and they’re not quite there yet. The “let’s put on a show” aesthetic is fun but I would like to see a little more stylization and precision. There are moments – particularly in the monologues – where one gets a sense of where this work could go if the performance aesthetic more fully matched the piece’s poetic and intellectual aspirations. It can be considered a political or aesthetic choice to reject the discipline of form, but I think it would be really exciting to see a little more polish. I think of Steven Berkoff’s East and West, where his poetic abstractions of London street language were matched with a precise, focused, athletic physicality. The heightened sense of reality created by the language was well-served by attention to detail in performance.

I admire Half Straddle’s dedication to exploring the world through the female lens and its critique of gender roles and stereotypes. I enjoy Satter’s poetry, her sly, gentle sense of humor and the way the work challenges conventional narrative structure. There are some great performers in the ensemble who offer up clear characterizations, and deliver their lines with great timing that matches Satter’s understated wit. FOOTBALL cut away a lot of the extraneous silliness of NURSES and really felt like a great step in the right direction for this exciting young company. I would love to see them keep stretching and growing and am curious to see what they’ll do next.

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