Theater archives

Walter Dundervill and Trajall Harrell Give New Meaning to the Word “Show”


Somewhere in the middle of Walter Dundervill’s entrancing new Destiny 1: Candy Mountain, a performer says, “It’s all cryptic; I guess that’s the point.” She (Janet Dunson) may be referring to the undercover, possibly dangerous journey that she and two men (Ben Boatright and Kevin Lovelady) have embarked on, but the remark aptly sums up the work.

Dundervill both designs and choreographs parallel universes that shift fluidly between the mundane and the fabulous, past and present, rehearsal and performance. Watching Destiny 1 at Dance Theater Workshop, you can imagine that some bon-bon-bright revue is unfolding in outer space, gradually merging with scenes from an adventure story whose outcome is unknown.

As the audience enters the theater, Dundervill is laying out and fidgeting with his set—three large, multi-colored, interlocking polygons, two medium-sized ones, and a number of tiny ones on little islands of their own. Some resemble—or can be manipulated to resemble—Alpine peaks, and they’re carted away almost immediately, to return later in various new guises.

After the 12 performers have cleared the stage, they lie supine, their heads almost meeting as the center of a circle, their legs raying out like the spokes of a wheel. Justin Luchter’s unearthly score begins its soft, richly textured, occasionally melodic, chiming, rumbling, and digital beeping, and the people begin rolling slowly around the ring—with each turn, repeatedly opening their legs and snapping them shut in a countdown from 10 to one.

Dundervill’s costume sense is outrageous. As a fashion designer, he’s an outsider artist. The dancers begin and end in shiny, draped black outfits; strip down to black trunks and halter tops; and gradually re-appear in untidy, yet artful bundles of different hues—made even more candy-colored by Carrie Woods’s lighting. Sometimes the swatches of fabric look tucked and tied, rather than sewn. Pieces trail behind. Although the silhouette is bulky, it’s also revealing; backs are bare, breasts slip out from under criss-crossed strips of cloth; buttocks poke out of flying yardage.

The nine silent dancers appear intermittently in routines—marching in lines, facing us as if in a retro nightclub (but not compelled to display charm, even when the movement implies it). Jennifer Kjos and Penelope Margolis start a strenuous sequence of kicks and struts and turns that others join. Then all break into contrapuntal squads that lay patterns on the floor as interestingly unruly as the grid the performers later make out of colored ribbons pulled from their costumes.

If we don’t fully understand the actors’ plot, it’s not for lack of repetition. Dunson, Boatright, and Lovelady deliver their conversation several times with subtle differences, usually in loud, affectless tones; they hold poses. Sometimes they recite their own stage directions. We get the gist of their mission. They’re at a mountain resort with a thick pile of papers. They need to travel farther. Danger lies ahead. Boatright is the weak link. There may be something between the two men. In their most artificial repetition, the three recited their lines expressionlessly, holding up their hands as if to read a script; behind them, three dancers poise cardboard shapes above the seated actors’ heads, and the other cast members sit at their feet. Near the end, Dunson delivers one of the speeches in quiet, thoughtful “realistic” mode.

The stage is a carnival of stuff and saturated colors. Dundervill and a stagehand rig up and suspend a snowy peak of unbleached muslin that partly buries the three possible spies (or explorers) as if by avalanche. In an ingeniously choreographed clean-up, dancers sit in pairs, one person behind the other; the one in the rear pushes the front one along with his or her feet, and the front one acts as a broom, gathering up everything along the way.

In the end, all the bewitching clutter is gone. The black-clad dancers—some lying, some standing—form group patterns like big snowflakes. Finally, only two performers are left. Benjamin Asriel and Burr Johnson slowly tumble over each other, touching their fingers and toes together to mold an array of polygonal shapes. The effect is curiously erotic—as if you could be watching relics emerge from the soil, men working at intimate connections, and, at the same time, particles merging to form new entities. Their aesthetic destiny.


These days, Trajal Harrell’s mission and his destiny are clear. He wants to imagine what might have happened had voguing infiltrated iconoclastic Judson Dance Theater performances in 1963. He’s hot to mingle everyday movement, matter-of-fact presentation, process as performance, and queries about art with the splashy, gender-bending theatrics of voguing and the Ball competitions documented in the 1990 film Paris Is Burning. So far he’s produced two “sizes” of Twenty Looks or Paris Is Burning at the Judson Church, extra-small and small. The version that lit up the Kitchen (alit on?) has an M after its name. I wouldn’t, however, use the word “medium” to describe its impact. Devised and choreographed with three unusual and vivid French performers, the piece at times rambles and fusses around, then erupts with some fabulously theatrical image.

Harrell chats up the audience before the show starts. Costume changes litter a few of the seats. The performers hunker down in the front row or in the aisle to apply makeup and watch colleagues. Harrell himself seldom alters his attire: gray jeans and long-sleeved T-shirt. But the first solo is spectacularly weird. In front of five standing banks of four lamps each (lighting by Yannick Fouassier), Marlene Monteiro Freitas appears wearing only black tights and high-heeled boots. To an uncredited swatch of music that sounds something like a gamelan gone wild, she’s a gawky marvel. Staring at us all the while, she twists and arches her back and swings her limbs around; she makes explosive jumps, falls heavily, and gallops around the arena. She pulls hanks of fake hair from her curly black mop. Then, simmering down into pseudo-Judson casualness, she approaches a mic, introduces herself as Mimosa Ferrara, and tells us that her tights keep falling down.

The other two guest collaborators are equally astonishing. François Chaignaud comes down the aisle clad in a gray satin evening gown and in a nimble, caressing contralto sings of which national and ethnic groups we can fuck. Stripping down to fake boobs and a sparkly g-string, this version of Mimosa Ferrara can also manage a raptly lyrical solo with uncanny balances on one leg. Cecilia Bengolea comes before us, strutting sinuously in a high-heels-point-shoe combo and covered from her feet to the top of her head in a flesh-colored body stocking. She also sports the outline of a discreetly restrained penis. In this garb, she arches into backbends and bourrées in a squat. Where have these people been all my life?

There’s highlight after highlight as the evening meanders along. Harrell introduces and performs a solo—his first—made while traveling in Peru; it’s a slow, serpentine, inwardly focused piece that barely moves from one spot. Ambiguities of race and gender abound. All four put on flamboyant fluorescent lipstick and eye makeup; when the lights go off, they look like lost minstrel show entertainers. Askew imitations of pop singers alternate with plainspoken snatches of autobiography. Monteiro Freitas fiercely lip-synchs and twitches through “Dance Little Sister,” looking remarkably like Prince, her face manned-up by a five-o’clock shadow. Bengolea, freed of her body-suit, shrieks her off-key way through another song, as if channeling Kate Bush and Florence Foster Jenkins at the same time.