Last Friday night, Dusty and I joined our good friends Matthew and Frankie for a performance at the Saint Mark's church. The work was presented by danspace and entitled "Judson Church Is Ringing in Harlem (Made-to-Measure)/Twenty Looks or Paris Is Burning at the Judson Church (M2M),” and was part of a series of performances.
Taking what I could from the title and the idea of the ballroom dance houses of Harlem, famous for the Vogueing movement meeting downtown 60's performance scene, I set off on my own narrative. I felt I had a good handle on what was about to unfold in front of me.
As the music cued up and bits of songs that were recognizable but not immediately able to be called to mind, choreographer Trajal Harrell cupped his face in his hands as he moaned "mama, no…" repeatedly endlessly, referencing the mothers of Harlems houses - Crystal (Pepper) LaBeija in particular - in a kind of clairvoyant lament to what would become of the commercialization of Vogue.
As Trajal and the other two dancer that made up the group of three began moving methodically to a play on the lyrics they spoke "don't stop to dance" and pounded the much overdone word "work" into the ground, I was reminded of Andy Warhol and his work ethic. Instilled by his working class Hungarian/Austian mother it conjured Lou Reed John Cale's tribute album to Warhol, Songs For Drella (Drella was Warhol's unofficial drag name) and a few of the lyrics from the song WORK;
"He lived alone with his mother, collecting gossip and toys. Every Sunday when he went to Church He'd kneel in his pew and say, "It's just work, all that matters is work."
As Trajal's LaBeija lamented, bemoaning up a frenzy of defiance against the Warholian invasion of the sacred rituals of the Harlem houses and the "golden age" of NYC drag balls, the dancer's movements became more jerky in their fluidity. A kind of jilted war between the ideas of dance and style as individual freedom of expression vs. art as agency ensued while the room grew louder and more dense with the layering of recored sound and the deafening screams of the performers.
This kind of art as agency is what Warhol would (knowingly or not) be a part of insinuating onto a scene that hadn't nececarrily invited it (though they may have enjoyed some of the much due attention and fanfare that came with him and his Factory Scene).
Somewhere toward the middle of the performance as the two ideas found stable footing to co-exist in the same space, Antony Haggerty's (of the Johnsons fame) voice floated ethereally in, an one couldn't tell if the well appointed song was inserted sardonically for it's obvious references (Nina Simone is most often noted) or simply the outcome of the uptown blues influence on the downtown avant-scene of the time.
As the performance peaked and full on Vogueing commenced the words of Warhol's ethos "don't stop to dance" had somewhere morphed into "DON'T STOP THE DANCE!" And the word "work" was less heavy and more playful, as Ru Paul would have it.
In the end the piece was totally upbeat and the dance (both literally and figuratively) was saved from smashing into a million pieces or being completely absorbed by a corporate ogre. The three performers were fully energized, filled with vigor and joyful perseverance as their chiffon figures whirled archingly (I think I just made that word up) in circles touching down in front of a floor fan set to high, making them billow in their stoney poses.
As I left I wondered, what the commodification of these styles of free form dancing and Vogueing had done to to the communities that created them? Certainly one can see some of the animosity in a video of LaBeija's smack down with the judges, hosts and specifically Flawless Sabrina at a drag ball in 1967.
Most certainly it proposed to steal the soul (which of course it couldn't) of Vogue. But the cashing in of it - from Madonna to Lady Gaga - must have left some serious shrapnel in it's trail of branding and mass market appeal making.
But in the end. It seemed like the sentiment remained the same.
Don't stop the dance...
Of course, my entire idea of what the piece was about was totally wrong and it was actually about the proposed examination of an imagined meeting, in 1963, of the Harlem voguing and Judson Dance Theater movements... Oh well I liked my version better.