Ghosts and Samurai as seen by Tajal Harrell

20 Mar

Cal Performances presented Tajal Harrell’s performance piece, The Ghost of Montpelier Meets the Samurai, at Zellerbach Playhouse March 18 to an audience of widely ranging ages; judging from post-performance comments, varied aesthetic persuasions. I went with Rita Felciano who filled me in on from ‘Eighties practices in New York City after the hour and forty minutes of non-stop watching an amazing parade of stylistic devices. Seven skillful dancers used their admirable physiques in the performing admonition “Etonne moi!” They succeeded in that regard without leaving me particularly gratified, but cognizant there’s a lot “out there” of which I have been blissfully and happily ignorant. A 2012 New Yorker review also helped bring me up to snuff regarding M. Harrell.

Clearly I mentally live in a cultural backwater when reading the program’s production support: Festival Montpellier Dance 2014; Festival d’Automme 2015, Centre Pompidou; Walker Arts Center, Minneapolis; Hau Hebbel am Ufer, Berlin and residency support also stemmed from Montpelier, Antwerp and Angers, The French US Exchange in Dance and Creative Capital, New England Foundation for the Arts/National Dance Project; Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts.

The Zellerbach Playhouse has a broad proscenium and presented several chairs near the stage lip, a low table which had steps leading up to it in the back and down the stage left corner. Behind it were about three oblong pads about two or three inches high and before the exit/ entrances on either side of the back stage; another table, lower than the front, with a variety of objects atop and cluttered around the long side faced the audience from upstage right.

Two of the seven performers with Harrell making a third were mentioned in the 2012 New Yorker review: Thibault Lac and Ondrej Vidial. The others were Perle Polombe, Steven Thompson, Christine Vassiliou, and Camille Durif Bonis.

Production credits were heavily weighted with Harrell’s name: soundtrack, set design with Erik Flatmo, costumes with the performers and, of course, choreography, such as it was. Stefane Parraud was credited with lighting design, dramaturgy with Gerard Mayen and Rob Fordeyn provided the voice over.
Harrell, swathed in red, started off the performance in the guise of Anna Wintour of Vogue exhorting the audience to support the arts in the face of continuing cuts. There was a raffle with first a man and then a woman making choices from the upstage props. One of the performers came out in sneakers and then a girl from stage left crossed the stage in grey sweat pants and very ordinary tee shirt in a loping walk referencing the cat walk of fashion shows. After perching on the table with a slim young woman who came out in high heels, and the two of them chatting via hand-held mikes, the cast began to emerge in costumes ranging from the minimal to the maximum covering. These latter garments were burka-like draperies of colorful prints, suggesting “the mysterious East” of late nineteenth century imagination. The accompanying music possessed a strong beat and minimal melody, the performers moving with a sway to the hips, a strut to the walk and on partial toe, barefoot, which in itself, was quite a feat.  This apparently is “vogueing.”

There was an early discussion about the connection between Dominique Bagouet and Tatsumi Hijikata, credited as the co-founder of butoh. [Kazuo Ohno is the other.] The performers who claimed it had started in Paris were corrected by Harrell, who said it happened in the East Village because Ellen Stewart, the founder of La Mama, brought them together.  White makeup was later applied by the performers to one another.

Harrell came on stage, first in black street wear, later in patterned brown draperies, echoing and leading the one-two-three hitching movement which varied from marching to swaying, pairing performers in a vastly modified echo of Greek dancing. Eventually, they all meandered their way to the backstage exits, after Harrell moved along the aisles in front of the seated audience exhorting the audience to join the rhythm.

During the performance there were three or four lighted objects circling on the backstage table among the objects originally available for the raffle. It was impossible to discern exactly their raison d’etre from my particular seat.

The ensemble enjoyed some loud cheers and clapping from the back. Next to me a senior couple left their seats sometime during the first twenty minutes. As Rita and I walked to her car, I heard members of the audience remark, “It’s a sort of alternate theatre, as if you had strayed up to the Castro,” and another phrase a minute or two later from someone else, “There were obviously layers of reference which were quite obscure.”

The burka-like costumes reminded me of gypsy costumes, my sister, first cousin and I wore one afternoon in my grandmother’s back yard.  I never ticked that off as art.





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