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Vogue, Postmodern Dance To Come Together In Hammer Museum Performance

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As with any work of great ambition, it's hard to find a starting point in explaining the scope. This is certainly true for "Twenty Looks or Paris Is Burning at the Judson Church," choreographer Trajal Harrell's sprawling dance project, which is scheduled to drop by the Hammer Museum this weekend.

The work focuses on two dance forms. On one hand there's vogue, which had its beginnings in the clubs and parties in Harlem during the '80s. Formed by a subculture of gay men, the dance involved striking bold poses, and exuding a spirit that suggested glamour and unwavering pride (yes, Madonna co-opted it for that one song). It was a dance that seemed more suited for the runway than the discotheque.

Harrell's project also touches on the contributions of the Judson Dance Theater, which was formed in the '60s by a collection of dancers at the Judson Memorial Church in New York City's Greenwich Village. The collective's aim was to break free of all our pre-conceived notions on dance. As noted in the New York Times, the dancers "made sometimes gleeful, sometimes messy, but always fundamentally serious investigations into the nature and structure of dance movement."

"Twenty Looks..." imagines a world in which the vogue scene comes in contact with the ethos at Judson Church. It's not just a hazy piece of whimsy: Harrell actually envisions this happening. As Harrell tells LAist via email, the project posits the question, "[What] would have happened in 1963 if someone from the voguing dance tradition in Harlem had come downtown to Greenwich Village to perform alongside the early postmoderns at Judson Church”?

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"Primarily, I’ve been interested in the similarities and differences between postmodern dance’s notion of authenticity and voguing’s idea of realness," said Harrell, when asked about his efforts to bring these two worlds together. He adds that he feels both movements "have a strong affinity and connection to improvisational movement practices" and that he tries to "look at the theoretical connections between the two rather than utilize a fusion of movement vocabulary."

So we have the thesis. But there's also the complicated matter of the form and medium. "Twenty Looks..." is parsed down into a series of works, categorized from "XS" to "XL" (like the shirts in a department store). While dance performance is at the forefront, "XL," which was released in early January, also involves a digital publication on Harrell's mediations on dance. Harrell tells LAist that his decision to split his work into installments is, partly, also an effort to safeguard the piece from being hijacked. "[We] know what can often happen when a non-dominant artistic product comes into a dominant cultural context or market. Often that artistic product gets renamed, stolen, and/or repackaged," Harrell wrote to LAist. "We can think of the Blues into Rock and Roll, for example. So the different sizes was an artistic strategy to subvert this." He says that, "the more stuff one brings in different variations, the less likely it being stolen would be effective, due to the fact that it could easily and quickly be replaced."

The performance that Harrell is bringing to the Hammer this weekend is labeled as "M2M," or "made to measure," a spinoff of the XS-to-XL line. The Hammer describes M2M as a "customizable version" of "Twenty Looks..." In this performance, Harrell will guide three dancers (he's one of them) as they imagine a scene that's a cross between a vogue ball and a Judson Theater showing. As Harrell tells LAist, the audience will be as integral as the dancers themselves. "It’s not about what’s in my head. It’s about what’s also in the head of the audience," said Harrell. "The imagining that we do together as performers and audience in the live moment is the thing that holds the performance together."

"Judson Church Is Ringing in Harlem (Made-to-Measure) / Twenty Looks or Paris Is Burning at the Judson Church" will take place on January 14 and 15 (Saturday and Sunday). Each performance goes from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. As with all programs at the Hammer Museum, admission is free. More info can be found here.