DanceLondonReview

Trajal Harrell: Porca Miseria – Barbican Theatre, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Director and Choreographer: Trajal Harrell

American choreographer Trajal Harrell’s triple bill at the Barbican presents contemporary dance in three very different ways, inspired by the stories of three different women. Although in truth, the connection to the sources of Harrell’s inspiration is not always obvious.

Deathbed is billed as both art installation and performance. With the audience sitting on stage on a mixture of cushions, banquettes and chairs, Harrell’s company emerge from behind a set of wardrobes, supplementing their casual dance wear with skirts, dresses and other trinkets to perform short routines. When not performing, the dancers sit on the edges, arranging, packing up and then re-arranging personal items – chains, books, the detritus of lives gone by.

It’s an aggressively put-together collage. Musical tracks start and stop suddenly and with little sense of an overall crescendo to the piece. Some of the dance is lyrical and sweeping; at other times, it is sharply staccato. One of the most resonant sequences comes early on, with the entire ensemble strutting on tiptoe as if wearing invisible heels. Such footwork imposes certain types of posture on the body, and seeing performers of all sizes and body shapes adapt accordingly is fascinating.

Throughout, Harrell watches from the audience, occasionally stepping up to perform a short sequence himself. But mainly this is about his dancers, their concentration and devotion to their actions.

There is a real thrift store vibe to proceedings, as though Harrell’s company improvised their way through a charity shop to build this project. The result is a sense that all these pre-owned and pre-loved dresses, skirts and other paraphernalia imbue a sense of their past lives onto those in the present. It’s certainly a stronger takeaway than the programme’s stated theme of an inspiration to African American choreographer and civil rights activist Katherine Dunham.

Harrell’s second piece is a film recording of O Medea, a five-person piece inspired by the Greek myth. Filmed in what appears to be the foyer of an industrial office building, attention is diverted from the dancing by frequent cutaways to the camera crew standing around, or by a giant pendulum swinging over a circle edged with household products. That’s a shame, because when focus returns to the dancers, this is the most emotionally involving part of the entire trilogy.

The final work of the evening, Maggie the Cat, is nominally a response to the Tennessee Williams play Cat On a Hot Tin Roof. The intention is to move attention away from the rich white family at the heart of Williams’s work and onto the servants who are otherwise backgrounded or ignored. Structurally and thematically, that inspiration rarely comes across, however.

Instead, we get a series of catwalk-style struts, with performers using household upholstery items to emulate couture. And the first few times a performer sashays from the back of the stage to the front with cushions clasped to their head, or a bedsheet draped to suggest a high-end gown, the sense of fun is infectious. It’s helped by some over-the-top performances, especially from dancers Christopher Matthews and Songhay Toldon, that revel in the campness of it all.

But the truth is that there isn’t enough content in here to warrant a full hour. The makeshift drag element makes the whole piece feel like a mini-challenge in RuPaul Drag Race that has been stretched out to fill an entire programme. It’s not helped by an approach to musical accompaniment, in which multiple tracks of very different styles, tempos and keys crash over each other.

Some of the movement in Maggie the Cat echoes similar styles in Deathbed, but rather than the former feeling like an extension or a complementary work to the latter, it instead feels like repetition for the sake of it. To devote oneself to the entirety of Proca Miseria’s long programme means giving up several hours of one’s evening: by the end, it feels far longer than that.

Continues until 14 May 2023

The Reviews Hub Score

A drag

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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