Which is more interesting: counting wallpaper roses or watching people fold clothes? That I’m even considering the question while taking in Trajal Harrell’s Quartet for the End of Time at DTW means that the provocative piece is beginning to drag its feet. For what seems a very long time, we’ve been looking at Sirah Foighel, Will Gordon, Liz Santoro, and Christina Vasileiou—alone or in company—walk into Erik Flatmo’s small “room” of translucent panels hanging from tall tripods, undress, and fold a discarded garment.
Redefine undress. O.K.—they lie down on their backs and squirm out of their clothing. No hands allowed. This real struggle is no cliff-hanger, but it can be compelling—especially when Santoro removes two long, white tube socks using only her held-up feet. Harrell has mentioned in an interview that in this work he’s pondering sincerity (a quality he feels lacking in today’s art), irony, and authenticity. And though I may sound ironic, I am dead sincere about Santoro and the socks.
Harrell, a pomo artist-intellectual, is something of a throwback to the 1960s—questioning in his choreography the nature of art and spectatorship. The program for Quartet for the End of Time quotes Yvonne Rainer’s famous 1965 manifesto, replacing her every “no” with “maybe.” So, “Maybe to spectacle. Maybe to virtuosity. . .Maybe to seduction of the spectator by the wiles of the performer.” Harrell starts his piece by confronting the audience with a mélange of images—photos of Martin Luther King’s funeral, spoken variations on the words “I have a dream,” a video showing a flirtatious Japanese schoolgirl in a restaurant, a gallery exhibit, and more. We make of it what we can. Voices speak intermittently of family matters: a divorce, a car accident in which two little boys are killed; a father reads The Door in the Floor to his little daughter.
The wriggling involved in the no-hands disrobing relates to the hootchy-kootchy born, according to the program, at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. In line with this, the dancers are unselfconsciously naked or partly naked a lot of the time (the renegade penis is always eye-catching, mainly because it refuses to be choreographed). The selective, neutrally performed stripping contrasts with earlier surly (or deadpan) voguing by the performers. Many times they don unlikely combinations of garments from plastic bags on the sidelines, and strut downstage challengingly (except that Foighel makes a remark that I doubt has ever been heard on a fashion runway: “I hope that there is someone that will take care of me when I will be dead”).
When the dancers (did they dance? Not so you’d notice) undress in the “room,” they choose to fold, very carefully, one item of clothing. The rest they bundle up and take away. Vasileiou folds an already tiny bra (as I remember, the only thing she wore on this particular entrance). Santoro smooths out her 1950s-type cotton dress almost tenderly before diminishing it into a small bundle to leave behind. By this time, the snatches of music (Nina Simone, DJ Assault, Gustavo Santaolalla, et al.) have been replaced by excerpts from Olivier Messaien’s beautiful Quator pour la fin du temps—which was written in 1941 and played for the first time by the composer and some colleagues in Stalag VIII-A, Germany, for their fellow prisoners of war.
Harrell prolongs the folding sequence and buries it, theatrically speaking, yet something ignites in the crevice between “being” and “performing,” between clothing as show and as artifact. The left-behind garments suggest the remains of a wasteful society, the stripped-away identities of internees, and what’s left when we die. All this resonates in my brain—maddening me, but also tugging at feelings that I can’t define and Harrell won’t.
Luciana Achugar also thinks a lot about what dance can mean to both performers and audience and pushes against the boundary between them. She questions society’s ideas about beauty and what she sees as a tendency to honor intellect over sensual experience. Her new The Sublime Is Us challenges us with a sometimes primal physicality, while containing it in a carefully organized structure.
When the spectators (only 30 per show) enter DTW’s second-floor studio, five women stand in a back-to-back swarm, writhing dreamily, leaning together. We walk past them to sit in two rows of chairs arranged in two banks, under six feet from the studio’s mirrored wall. What do we see? Ourselves, the watchers. How do we look under the harsh lights? For better or worse, we look normal; everyone else looks crooked. We’re part of the performance; get used to it. As the women gradually separate, still undulating, we can identify them: Achugar, Hilary Clark, Jennifer Kjos, Melanie Maar, and Beatrice Wong, as storms-brewing, squalling sounds begin to come from a console at the back, with its little red and blue lights (music by Michael Mahalchick with Lucky Dragons). The women are garbed in Achugar’s trademark workers’ uniforms—navy-blue button-down-the-front dresses (some of the buttons have popped off). Underneath, they wear skimpy, silky leotards with floral appliqués. They look smaller and farther away when I see them in the mirror, larger and warmer when I turn my head,
They come nearer. Achugar and Maar squirm, entwined, along the aisle between the two halves of the audience and approach the mirror. From now on, the reflecting surface becomes a place of self-discovery, as well as a site for Achugar’s investigation of illusions. She presses her mouth to it, opens her dress to lean her pregnant belly against its image. Maar sits close, spreads her legs, and tries positions that’ll give her a better view of her crotch. Clark approaches the mirror as if mesmerized by it. These five powerful, witty performers are not all dancer-skinny and toned, and they do all that they can to sabotage what’s considered trendily attractive. Using black electrical tape, they fashion bizarrely entrancing outfits out of dresses turned backward, draped sweat jackets, dresses as capes, sweat jackets as turbans.
Early on, the lights go out, and in the darkness, Achugar, who has displaced one spectator to sit in her chair, soothingly adjures us to get in touch with our sensuous selves, to let our brains melt into our pelvises, spread our buttocks, rock a little, use our “butt brains” for a change. (I’m into cellular brains myself, and I’m game to rock my pelvis a bit and feel Clark moving against my chair, but I don’t like being lectured and wish Achugar didn’t feel it necessary.)
The performers sometimes wander behind us. Clark plays a few notes of “Für Elise” on the piano amid some transgressive banging. Later, Achugar pounds out a rhythm for the others by sitting on the keyboard. As The Sublime Is Us progresses, Achugar begins to explore symmetry. Behind us or in front of us, dancers divide in ink-blot symmetry, as in a Petipa ballet. If two women behind one half of the audience stretch their arms to the right, those behind the other bank of spectators do the same to the left. And when they’re touching the mirror, two become four. Uncannily, we seem to see through the mirror to actual doubles. Achugar has also choreographed an unorthodox way for pairs to get to the mirror. Scootching along on their butts feet first, they cross and almost tangle their legs as they advance. Later, clumped behind us on the floor, they cluster their legs together, suggesting the worms in the can Achugar may have opened.
The piece seems about to end, with the women back in their original swarm, when mirrored screens are wheeled in and set close behind us. Now we can see our own backs and the backs of the dancers who sit close to the mirror and examine their faces. What we can’t see is Wong wandering around at the back of the studio, wearing only underpants and dark glasses. I can only glimpse her occasionally if I actually turn around. Her reflection has gone missing. As the piece ends, a woman in the audience checks the mirror and fixes her hair. What could be more natural, given the smoke-and-mirrors atmosphere of today’s political atmosphere?