Possibly Maybe

Claudia La Rocco on Trajal Harrell's Quartet for the End of Time

New York

Performance views of Trajal Harrell’s Quartet for the End of Time, 2008. Left: Christina Vasileiou. Right: Christina Vasileiou, Sirah Foighel, Will Gordon, and Liz Santoro. (All photos: Alexandra Corazza)

This fall, New York’s already impossibly busy performance schedule has been complicated by another, grander form of spectacle: the presidential election. So last Wednesday, at the premiere of Trajal Harrell’s Quartet for the End of Time, it didn’t seem like an off prediction when artist-moderator Ralph Lemon quipped, “Tonight’s the debate, so naturally we’ll be talking to two people.”

But Harrell isn’t an easy artist to walk away from. As Lemon spoke, the Dance Theater Workshop lobby was already filling up with the usual blend of contemporary performance insiders: influential choreographers like Maria Hassabi and Yasuko Yokoshi; Lili Chopra, the vice president of cultural affairs at the French Institute Alliance Française, fresh from curating the “Crossing the Line” festival; André Lepecki, associate professor of performance studies at New York University.

Under the artistic directorship of Cathy Edwards, Dance Theater Workshop gained a newfound vitality. Edwards is that rare dance curator with vision, taste, and intelligence, and she wasn’t afraid to throw her support behind unknown, deeply adventurous choreographers. When she left in 2006, there was fear that the Chelsea stalwart would abandon this bracing questioning of the form. But its current artistic director, Carla Peterson, has continued the institution’s support of choreographers who are working to push at the very definition of dance.

Harrell is one such artist. His Quartet for the End of Time, which draws its name and much of its inspiration from the music Olivier Messiaen famously composed in a Nazi war camp, is many things. A beautifully formal work, dense and elegiac, it offers layer on layer of media and movement, all bound up in Harrell’s rigorously choreographic sensibility.

But it doesn’t offer much dance. Or, at least, not much of what still, somehow, almost fifty years after the Judson Dance Theater movement supposedly blew open the barn doors, is thought of as dance: perfect bodies moving perfectly in appealing phrases set to appealing music. Old and narrow definitions die hard.

And so it was that the “Just how is this dance?” question reared its ugly head at the postperformance discussion: Not even an experimental enclave like the workshop is safe from this strange, conservative inquiry, which confuses the strict action of dance with the larger art form. “How is it not?” is a favorite retort, but I also appreciated the response of exasperated sighs that gusted from the audience. Certainly, Harrell doesn’t make things easy on his viewers. He demands attention. He rewards it, too.

In Quartet, the audience entered a flipped theatrical reality: The house lights stayed up for a long time, forcing people to peer into the action. On the darkened stage, a montage of visual images, many of them photographs by Harrell’s collaborator, David Bergé, played out on standing screens that later became the work’s inner chamber: its heart, within which the dancers Sirah Foighel, Will Gordon, Liz Santoro, and Christina Vasileiou repeatedly, elegantly stripped naked. Harrell gave us the hootchy-kootchy show of his youth, utterly transformed through abstraction.

Left: David Bergé photos in the lobby. Right: Performance view of Quartet for the End of Time. (Sirah Foighel)

But first, darkness, and the seductive exteriors of images (every hootchy-kootchy show, whether it’s selling sex or art, needs to lure an audience). Current 93’s multilayered “When the Long Shadows Fall” played as the slide show unfurled: intimate photographs of strangers, staring out with ambiguous expressions; the evocative streets of foreign cities; sumptuous, decadent, overripe interiors. There was a sense of decay. The darkness began to feel suffocating. “I want you to want the body and to feel its absence,” Harrell later explained.

He succeeded. No physical bodies appeared on stage until more than fifteen minutes into the ninety-minute show. When they did, it was still something of a false offering: Designer Thomas Dunn flooded the stage with light, transforming the floor into a fashion show. The dancers stalked and strutted to the front of the stage, posed, then changed outfits on the sides: nude, but not naked, until Foighel quietly expressed the wish “I hope there is someone who will take care of me when I will die.”

Such a sincere wish—a naked wish—was hard to swallow on the heels of such a slickly empty display. But this is where Harrell takes viewers, plunging from nudity to nakedness and, increasingly throughout the work, giving the theatrical space over to Messiaen’s moving score. (Another audience member objected to such overt manipulation of her emotions, as if manipulation and resistance don’t lie at the heart of performance.)

Inherent in this plunge is the idea of failure. In his program notes, Harrell re-creates Yvonne Rainer’s Judson-era “No Manifesto,” replacing her denials with his maybes:

Maybe to spectacle. Maybe to virtuosity. Maybe to transformations and magic and make believe. Maybe to glamour and transcendency of the star image. . . . Maybe to moving or being moved.

This vulnerability haunted the dance’s sophisticated, cinematically informed surfaces: He isn’t sure. Neither were we, oscillating between boredom and fascination at the dancers’ ritualistic, arduous stripping. This was done without the use of hands; afterward, they methodically, almost obsessively folded specific items of discarded clothing, depositing them on the floor like artifacts.

This wasn’t done for us. Like all strippers, the performers protected themselves in a certain remote abstraction. They were cloaked in an audio collage of pop songs, unsettling stories of grief told by an invisible male narrator who doesn’t seem trustworthy, and, of course, Messiaen. Again, a choice: Harrell dazzled with surfaces. The maybe of going beyond that lies with us.

As he asked afterward, “What would be the condition that would allow for sincerity” to happen onstage? “How far can I go before getting scared and pulling back into my irony?”

He promptly answered himself: “I think we’re hungry for some seriousness.”