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Classical Greek voguing

Trajal Harrell’s Festival TransAmériques piece brings together two worlds of dance

A scene from Antigone Sr, New York choreographer Trajal Harrell’s contribution to Montreal’s Festival TransAmériques. The piece blends dance traditions and stirs in some classical Greek theatre for good measure. Credit: Bengt Gustafsson

In the early 1960s at opposite ends of Manhattan, two very different kinds of dancing were going on. In Greenwich Village, pioneers like Steve Paxton, Deborah Hay and Yvonne Rainer were holed up in the Judson Memorial Church developing the early post-modern style. At the same time, in Harlem’s gay nightclub scene, ballroom culture was heating up and voguing was emerging as a genuine art form.

Yet somehow, despite being born less than nine miles apart, the two scenes never met.

But what if they had? That’s the question proposed by New York choreographer Trajal Harrell’s eight-part series Twenty Looks or Paris Is Burning at The Judson Church. For Montreal’s Festival TransAmériques, Harrell brings the 2009 edition of the series Antigone Sr, which blends both dance traditions and stirs in some classical Greek theatre for good measure.

“I was trying to connect the voguing tradition to ancient Greek theatre,” Harrell says. “There’s this notion of these very conservative productions based on what we see today. But that’s not what it was like. Greek theatre was a much more carnivalesque, Bacchanalian rite of passage than this contained, staid version we think of. From that perspective, it could be seen as very similar to the ballroom scene.”

Harrell and his collaborators delve into the tale of the famed heroine’s battle with the King of Thebes over burying her dead brother. The show isn’t a precise retelling of the story, but a glammed-up, sexed-out, non-narrative take that Harrell dubs “Greek theatre realness.” In addition to leading the team, he also plays the title role, a part he’s had in the back of his mind since he first read the script at high school drama camp.

“I love her because she stands up for people’s rights, but she’s also a bit crazy,” Harrell says. “She’s exciting to play because of that madness and where she’s willing to go. She’s fighting against a king, which obviously takes a certain kind of fierceness. But she also has this intense compassion and love for her family, which motivates her in what she does.”

The choice to work with Antigone as a text isn’t simply about landing a teenager’s dream role. It also provides an alternative access point for audiences to the dance forms he’s exploring.

“There may be people who don’t know anything about post-modern dance or voguing, but who might go to a version of Antigone,” he says. “I was trying to bring more people to the conversation and have them discover that these dance forms and the tradition of Greek theatre may not be that different.”