Paris is still burning at NYLA

I missed several opportunities to see dancer and choreographer Trajal Harrell’s 20 Looks or Paris Is Burning at Judson Church, before finally catching the version presented last week at New York Live Arts in Chelsea. It was the best thing I’ve seen so far this year.

I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the New York ball scene way back in 1994-95. In my limited way back then, I tried to argue for taking balls seriously as an art form, and not simply an example in an theoretical argument about gender subversion, class and race envy, or whichever something else. To consider ball culture on its own terms is, necessarily, to see the whole world in it, to refuse marginality.

I moved on to other topics in graduate school, but the balls never went away. As a recent discussion at EMP Pop conference pointed out, balls have proved extraordinarily resilient to the periodic bouts of interloping they have had to withstand. Voguers have popped up in a variety of settings over the years, but always as a little thrill, a “blast from the past” brought in to enliven an art opening or such like. 20 Looks is different insofar as it takes the time and space of the ball scene (especially the time! this was a long, gorgeously shambolic affair, as are all the best balls) and filled it with new and inventive contents. Thus: art, sex, fashion, dance, music (techno and indie rock and vogue house and more), runway, MCing, and, draped around it all — I couldn’t decide if this was camp or entirely sincere — the classic Greek tragedy of Antigone.

This is the way to do queer black history, I thought! Not beautiful coffee table books that set culture in aspic, as Gayatri Spivak once hilariously put it. But moving, breathing, living dance theatre fierceness.

I hope to write something substantive about 20 Looks soon, so I’ll just end with a link to the one journalistic review I’ve spotted so far. In the NY Times, Claudia La Rocco found Harrell “sometimes the voluble and humorous M.C., sometimes a grief-stricken, almost creaturely figure.” I can see this reaction, but it didn’t occur to me at all during the evening. However, La Rocco also notes “As “Twenty Looks” has developed, this current of grief has coursed ever more strongly through the series,” so perhaps I needed to have seen the prior incarnations. Or perhaps what she read as grief I saw as the necessarily melancholic Stimmung of history, even, as here, at its most affirmative.