“Of Course it Was Intentional”: Reflections on Trajel Harrell at PICA’s 2013 TBA Festival

Originally published with the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art

After the show, my friend walked up to him and asked about the tag still connected to the shirt he’d worn on stage. “Was that intentional? Did you mean to leave that on?” Trajal laughed as he looked at her and said “of course,” of course it was intentional. It was part of the show. Then she told him: “That thing at the beginning was no big deal,” attempting to offer comfort for what seemed a monumental mistake in the performance. He smiled at her and laughed. That was intentional too. “It was?!” she laughed in surprise (and she’s no amateur in the world of experimental performance). ”Of course!” Trajal replied.

It was all intentional. The minutes of discomfort as we watched Trajal’s partner, Thibault Lac, dig through his bag looking for a prop, halting the show shortly after it had begun. Then the interaction between Thibault and Trajal in the front row and the tiny wrinkle of concern on Trajal’s otherwise stoic face, as if he were hiding anger at his partner’s ineptitude. Then Thibault’s quick departure from the room to look for the missing element, and his small smile that I interpreted as boyish humiliation. And Trajal’s speech to the audience, an audience that waited in line outside, behind closed gates for the sold-out show. Trajal apologized for the fact that they would have to begin the show over.

Photo by Whitney Browne

Photo by Whitney Browne

I was sitting next to Trajal as all this was occurring, an un-intentional move on my part when I chose my seat next to two empty ones reserved by a hand towel. I was next to Trajal when he sat down after his apology, and as he waited for Thibault to return. Trajal’s body folded at moments, his eyes sometimes looking in anguish at where Thibault had run off stage. At first, the audience was silent. But the initial feelings of respect and compassion, and perhaps thoughts that this was an intentional interruption, soon gave way to chatter and then palpable discomfort. As Trajal sat next to me, alone in embarrassed silence, the whispering in the audience grew increasingly loud.

A young woman seated on the floor in front of us, her head half shaved and dyed blue, whispered with friends. I looked over at her as she laughed and rolled her eyes in what seemed a moment of mocking disbelief. Trajal saw her too. He sighed next to me, as if the humiliation has just reached its peak, and turned his head away in sadness. Should I offer him a word of comfort?

Every moment is an opportunity to assess our own reactions, and TBA’s performances have a knack for bringing those moments into stark relief. If nothing else, this was a social experiment, I figured. Was I, as the woman next to the performer, expected to offer condolences and reassurance? Should I, at least, be careful not to turn my back on him as I too defaulted into mid-performance conversation with friends? What was my role to play in this performance?

Trajal stands and walks to the wall to continue waiting. Then, after a time, he decides to simply begin the show again. He announces to us that this search for the prop has taken longer than expected and that he’s just going to go ahead and start. Thibault is still not here. Trajal returns to the black open stage and, without much cue to anyone, the music begins. But this is not the music where things left off. This is a new act altogether. And after a couple of minutes, Thibault joins him on stage seamlessly. I wonder for a moment again if this hadn’t all been planned after all. But why?

The show Antigone Jr. (not to be confused with the “Made-to-Measure” version performed on Friday and Saturday) was an exploration into a hypothetical cross-breed of cultures. In Trajal Harrell’s words, all of the Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church performances explore the same question: ”What would have happened in 1963 if someone from the voguing dance tradition in Harlem had come downtown to the Judson Church in Greenwich Village to perform alongside the early postmoderns?”

And it was, in the end, a pleasing performance. A combination of voguing interspersed with an occasional beat generation musing from Trajal, a reading of Antigone by Thibault, and singing from them both. But it was also, always, this highbrow, intellectual work and high-skilled dance on a foundation of seeming disarray. It was not unlike what you might find if walking in on two smart, trained dancers high on something and joking around in a bedroom at 3am. Certainly, this impression was influenced by the costuming: boxer shorts and socks, a gray bathrobe, t-shirts, and an inside-out white something (with the tag still on). What would it have felt like with different clothing? And was that the impression Trajal intended to convey?

Satya Byock is a Portland psychotherapist specializing in dream work and Jungian psychology for individuals in the first half of adulthood. She recently delivered a workshop at PICA on the Language of the Unconscious Mind with Anna Craycroft as part of the C’mon Language series.

Originally published with the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art

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