Show girl, show man, fashion show, skin show, slideshow, showoff. Show, don’t tell. The program for Trajal Harrell’s Showpony lists these and more. But his version of puttin’ on a show drapes a sardonic, quizzical cool over the exhibitionism of fashion runway struts, voguing in clubs, and stripteases.
In two rows of 23 chairs each, onlookers face off across a strip of black floor with a movie screen at one end. The performers (Harrell, Katy Hernan, and Christina Vassiliou) enter by crawling under the central canvas panel of a triptych painted with suggestions of the jungle (set design by Erik Flatmo, visual design by assume vivid astro focus). We can glimpse behind it the pile of clothes where the three change outfits or load them into bags so that they can undress and re-dress while sitting in chairs among us.
Harrell wants us to know right away that we’re all in this bright arena together and that there’s no safety in voyeurism. He moves along the rows, sitting briefly on each lap he comes to, giving each of us a noncommittal stare. Onscreen, in American Gigolo, Richard Gere, preparing to meet Lauren Hutton, carefully selects an outfit from his extensive wardrobe. Onstage, the dancers promenade before us in ordinary shabby clothes—posing, pulling their shirts up and their pants down. It’s not just the sartorial contrast that’s witty. Despite their provocative stares and the flesh the three are baring, their main object is not to seduce us or get us to order garments just like theirs: Taped to the back of a t-shirt, the sole of a sneaker, a naked belly, or stuck to ripped sweatpants on the inside of a thigh are the credits for the evening’s performance. “Lighting design by Thomas Dunn” marches across Hernan’s back. The scene is one of the evening’s highlights.
Some of Harrell’s clever runway displays have the obstinate repetitiveness of ’70s postmodern dance. Hernan moves strenuously back and forth close to one set of watchers, as if in a narrow channel—swinging her straight arms forward, lunging, rotating halfway around, dropping into a squat. When it’s Vassiliou’s turn, she modulates some of the same moves, making them breathe, curve a little. Harrell thrusts his arms out aggressively and later paws his steps like a pony.
It’s entertaining to watch the performers at close range as they rummage through their bags and scramble in and out of mostly ratty, oddly matched clothes. Vassiliou clambers over a chair wearing the mask of an ancient, yellow-toothed ghoul. Another time, she takes over the runway in a black jumpsuit, shinily synthetic, with scraggly black hair sprouting from her hood and sleeves. Hernan performs an amazing number along one edge of the space, jacknifing her torso and stretching until her breasts rise from her strapless black dress. Close to the end, in dimmer light, the three quite ceremoniously rise from their chairs and perform suggestiveness—swiveling their hips and rolling their torsos with businesslike sobriety.
Soft songs, snippets of instrumental music, and assorted noises accompany the piece; among these are the lead-in to the Beatles’ “Come Together,” traces of Steve Reich’s “Come out to Show Them,” and Gavin Bryars’s “Jesus’ love never failed me yet.” Some of the musical selections, Harrell said in a recent interview, were featured in pieces by other choreographers. And he finishes Ponyshow by referencing the downtown dance community less subtly in a slideshow. In snapshots taken at the 2006 ImpulsTanz Festival in Vienna (where Harrell, Hernan, and Vassiliou met), folks familiar and unfamiliar booze, chat, pose goofily, and embrace in rumpled beds.
Slideshows are a curious phenomenon. “Oh God,” we sigh silently in anticipation, “Cousin Ella at the Great Wall.” But, in the end, we may be drawn into this life-on-display. Harrell’s exhibition is no different; it’s a bit long and boring but it handily situates the choreographer in the community that spawned him, our star of the evening and his celebrity chorus.