Traversing the Fantasy, Trajal Harrell’s “Caen Amour” at Philly Fringe
Jessica Rizzo takes celebrated choreographer, Trajal Harrell to task over his newest piece, “Caen Amour,” which showed at the Fringe Festival earlier this month. According to Rizzo, Harrell’s piece, which was inspired by the hoochie-coochie performers of the late 19th century, falters not only in its attentiveness to history (and its audience) but in its treatment of the female body.

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Choreographer Trajal Harrell began his acclaimed Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church series with a question: “What would have happened in 1963 if someone from the voguing ball scene going on in Harlem had travelled downtown to perform alongside the early postmoderns at Judson Church?” His stagings of an imagined collision between these parallel traditions, one “high” culture, one “low,” one white, one black, worlds apart though in fact separated by only a few Manhattan miles, were if nothing else provocatively novel. Until they weren’t. Harrell milked this concept for nearly a decade, making versions in different “sizes,” labeling them S, M, L, XL, etc., to appeal to the greatest possible variety of presenting organizations.

Caen Amour, Trajal Harrell, FringeArts Fringe Festival, 2018.
Caen Amour, Trajal Harrell, FringeArts Fringe Festival, 2018. Photo: Orpheas Emirzas

A Question of History

Harrell’s Caen Amour, presented in Philadelphia as a part of the 2018 Fringe Festival, proposes the elevation of another downmarket dance vocabulary: that of the travelling hoochie-coochie shows popular throughout the rural US for much of the twentieth century. The American obsession with “oriental” erotic dance can be traced to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, where the Syrian dancer Farida Mazar Spyropoulos, known as “Little Egypt,” performed a belly dance that inspired countless imitators. Dancers representing themselves as Arab women would go on to tour the country with carnivals as “adults only” sideshow acts. As with Twenty Looks, Harrell begins Caen Amour with a question. I regret that I must quote it in full:

“What kind of liminal experiments could we imagine taking place amongst the women who were dancing and making dance (or as we like to say “shaking and baking it”) in these contexts? Perhaps these artists were well aware of plural modernisms, Spanish dancer La Argentina, Gauguin, nudity versus the nude, Zen, free jazz, hula, questioning primitivism, and the seeds of third wave feminism yet to come at the end of the century. Who knows?”

Who indeed? Harrell certainly doesn’t. Though infatuated with the trappings of academic inquiry, Harrell exhibits neither the patience nor the creativity required to produce quality scholarship.This would be entirely forgivable if he possessed either the patience or the creativity required to produce quality dance. He uncritically reproduces the historical hoochie-coochie shows’ lazy, ignorant elision of Middle Eastern and Asian cultures without demonstrating any serious interest in recreating and recontextualizing actual period choreography or design, and he presents no evidence that the hoochie-coochie dancers approached their work with any of the high self-consciousness that characterizes the project of modern art. At its best, Caen Amour is glib. At its worst, it is offensively misogynist. It is also poorly stage-managed to the point of being dangerous.

Tripping over the Fourth Wall

Spectators enter the space by crossing through the “backstage” area of the set, painted flats depicting a schematic casbah, which performers will later use to change costumes. As we traverse the porous boundary between the stage and the auditorium to take our seats, we are confronted with the text of the above-cited question, printed out in large letters and taped to the floor. Being reminded that moving from one side of a threshold to another is an experience that can be characterized as “liminal” is meant, I gather, to make us register the experience as a profound one. It is not.

The house lights stay up while Harrell dances indolently to a pop music playlist for about twenty minutes. Then a young woman rises from the audience, turns to address us, and brays the song “My Mother Gave Me A Penny” in a New Yawk accent from start to finish, perhaps to put us in some sort of schlocky, vaudevillian state of mind. She drops the caricature to deliver instructions for the remainder of the performance that manage to be both draconian and unclear. We are invited to travel “freely” between the auditorium and the backstage area. But we aren’t allowed to touch anything, and we’re only allowed to take certain paths, and we have to go out the way we came in, etc. It’s all very liminal. Since no care has been taken to situate Caen Amour in the FringeArts space in a way that would make it possible for spectators to actually move about “freely,” the rest of the performance is occluded by people tripping over each other, confused docents herding us into corners, and on the night I attended, at least one member of the audience falling off the bank of seating risers to the floor.

Playing with Gender

This is a shame, because the three dancers Harrell has enlisted are exceptional. When the hoochie-coochie show proper begins, Ondrej Vidlar, Thibault Lac, and Perle Palombe (the only woman), take turns parading across the stage in an array of styles of dance and dress, some loosely inspired by the faux-exoticism of the historical hoochie-coochie shows. It is intriguing to watch the two men playing at both masculinity and femininity. They each bring a tremendous amount of vulnerability, curiosity, and physical precision to their work. Even when he is embodying a diffident or aloof stripper, Lac in particular telegraphs a rich, melancholy interiority that is mesmerizing to watch.

Distressingly, however, Ms. Palombe dances nude while her male counterparts remain clothed, give or take a flash of ass here and there. She is also given none of the opportunity to “play” with gender that her male counterparts enjoy; she is represented as being fundamentally and inescapably identical to her gendered body. While the male dancers are in constant motion, Palombe is left to stand around for long stretches of the performance, totally exposed to the audience’s ogling. When she does dance, the emphasis of her choreography is less on her technical skill and more on the revelation of her flesh and its contours.

Harrell attempts to excuse this in a page of choreographer’s notes, which is distributed to the audience by the New Yawker a third of the way through the show and reads like a parody of a treatise on postmodern aesthetics. “Here in this personal rendering of a hoochie-coochie show,” he writes, “most of the historical sexism and other–isms remain in place in order to imagine as closely as possible what other possible performativities might have been at stake.” Even granting, for argument’s sake, that there is anything at stake in Caen Amour, the sexism in the piece is not historical, but rather quite contemporary; it is Harrell’s.

Caen Amour ran September 13-15, 2018 at Fringearts, 140 N. Columbus Boulevard Philadelphia, PA

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