Trajal Harrell, the American dancer/choreographer returns to the Barbican with his 2022 work Porca Miseria (translation: damn it) and it's a full evening affair spanning 3.45 hrs in three different sections.
Here's a brief blurb description of all three:
- Deathbed: “inspired by a meeting between Harrell and African American choreographer Katherine Dunham (1909-2006), and all the questions he didn't get to ask her.”
- O Medea: an “emotional homage to a tragic heroine in an extraordinary exploration of grief” through film.
- Maggie the Cat: “inspired by Maggie, the troubled but tough central character of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
And here's an even briefer sharing of my initial thoughts:
- Deathbed = convoluted seance.
- O Medea = exercise in indulgence.
- Maggie the Cat = a rave in Habitat.
It really was quite a long night, made even more arduous by the content at times. And it's safe to say: if Rupaul did conceptual art I think we've found what it would look and feel like. Harrell is a very interesting character though, and responsible for the whole caboodle: direction, choreography, costume and set design, as well as sound design. His presence feels like that of a deity throughout, whether observing his work from the sidelines or dancing in the centre of them.
Deathbed was an interesting scene. A slightly raised platform in the centre of the stage surrounded by the audience, with most sitting on the floor. At the back of the space was an extended walk-in closet that housed probably hundreds of garments and props, and also acted as a form of privacy for the cast to do their numerous costume changes and prop pick-up/drop-off.
The movement of the piece was simple: walks (runway to slow-mo Butoh), step ball changes, skips and Voguing (to fabulous, live, voice-created percussion #blackbodysuit). And further confirmed we were definitely in the realm of conceptual art as opposed to conventional dance territory. As did the dancers' conviction. I don't think I've ever seen a cast so obviously engrossed in what they were doing as this group. To the point that it felt like method dancing – a Konstantin Stanislavski approach. Perhaps the three (!?) dramaturgs helped? Deathbed concluded with a funeral procession of sorts, and pre-dying the dancer in question had a full-on emotional breakdown. And this wasn't acting. It was happening.
It would take a PhD and then some to even start to understand the intent behind the intention of this complex work, let alone all the meanings interwoven into the costume and prop choices. But these points ask a bigger question about conceptual work and accessibility: how much does an audience member need to know in order to engage with a work? I go to the theatre a lot and could have taken this experience in two very different ways… this is profound so concentrate, or what a load of codswallop!
Some pieces of clothing (Dunham reference?) seemed to totally change the way the dancers moved or behaved. Specifically (faux?) fur coats which gave an air of Dynasty, and loose, billowing skirts/dresses that turned skipping into a mystical, emotional journey. Undoubtedly further inspired by the accompanying classical, chamber-style music. I got Mark Morris references here.
O Medea I struggled with. As a film it captured nature and man-made architecture beautifully, and behind-the-scenes shots added a potent reality to the work, but movement-wise it read indulgent and repetitive. The dancers seemed in permanent (inner) turmoil, suggesting a fear or discomfort of light with hands protecting their faces from a setting sun. And where Harrell went they followed. So one wonders how much is set, and what is reactive improvisation in the moment.
And then to Maggie the Cat. If brutally honest, it wasn't massively different from Deathbed, just more intense sashaying, the addition of soft furnishings, a change of some cast and lots of on-the-spot couture creation – here's my skirt made of cushions and gaffer tape, here's my wannabe Halston number consisting of a blanket draped over my arm with buckets of attitude.
The majority of Maggie was done to very good house music, and long sections saw the cast, who were introduced by Harrell as the Help, behaving as if they were in a nightclub heading towards the pinnacle of a very good session. But they weren't, they were in the Barbican theatre, and so were we.
Harrell explained that he and another dancer were two of the main characters from Tennessee Williams' play: Big Daddy and Big Mama. They didn't do masses of dancing, but made good use of microphones offering a hybrid rapping/singing style with content predominantly concerning Maggie or pussy. The loud music drowned Harrell out somewhat, but I heard things about Maggie and Givenchy, Singapore Airlines and tick tock bitch, tick tock bitch.
By the end of Maggie, I was closer to codswallop than profound, but the majority of the audience were on their feet applauding, so go figure.
Conceptual art and dance is about risk taking and progression, and sometimes it goes above and beyond what you imagined. I had such an experience with Marina Abramović's durational work 512 Hours at the Serpentine Gallery in 2014. I didn't have the same one with Harrell's Porca Miseria… but that's not to say that everybody else didn't. Gotta love art.
Matthew Paluch was awarded a place at The Royal Ballet School in 1990 where he graduated in 1997. His first four years as a professional dancer were spent working with London City Ballet, Scottish Ballet, K-Ballet and English National Ballet, becoming a full-time member of ENB until leaving in 2006.
Matthew graduated from the Royal Academy of Dance, Professional Dancers' Teaching Diploma in 2007, and was fomerly on faculty at The Royal Ballet School. He completed his Masters in Ballet Studies at Roehampton University in 2011 and has been a freelance writer since 2010. He is a Trustee (2021) of the Royal Academy of Dance and works in the Law Sector.