Since both post-modern dance and the voguing ball scene are marked by considerable self-indulgence, it is unsurprising that (Mi)imosa – Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church, which takes its cues from these movements, frequently gets lost in rambling interludes. These passages threaten to undermine the conceptual brilliance of Tarjai Harrell’s fusion of high art and queer subversion, only to be rescued by the virtuosity of the four strong cast.
Harell’s genius is to imagine a past in which the Judson Church, home to various, dynamic choreographers in the 1960s, was invaded by the downtown ballroom scene, where queer culture flourished and social dance was a vigorous means of cultural expression. Alongside the highly formalised “task based” movements of the post-modern choreographers from Judson, there is lip-synching and catwalk posing, drag and kitsch operatic numbers. The collision of styles is bracing, postulating a choreography that links the showing out of the nightclub and the high art of contemporary dance. And beneath the performance, the urgent questioning of queer culture, its deconstruction of masculine and feminine stereotypes and the gap between the real and the fake.
Arika, who programmed (M)imosa as part of Episode 5, their look at queer identity, have moved away from their roots in music to curate weekends that challenge notions of freedom. In Episode 5, sexual identity gets called, and queer culture (including gay, bisexual, trans and drag) is presented as an alternative to the monolithic sexualities and gender identities that artistic director Barry Esson suggests are inculturated by the dominant hegemony (also known as late capitalism, social normativity, the state and patriarchy).
(M)imosa undeniably strikes at easy delineates of gender and sexuality: the four performers flicker between male, female, gay and straight appeal. But in stark contrast to Esson’s radical distrust of stable ideas of fake and real, the performers restate authenticity through their mockery of stereotypes and intriguing gender recombinations. Towards the end, Harell himself tells an anecdote to reveal the five occasions when the fake must be put aside (interestingly, three of them are sacraments, the fourth is for matters of health and the final one is shopping). (M)imosa might take delight in confusion and faking it, but the possibility of parody depends on the verifiable existence of the object to parody.
Given the cabaret format of the performance, and the many moments of brilliance (including an excerpt from a ballet, the final Prince impersonation, a funky introduction that is the most obvious integration of vogue and contemporary choreography and the sudden shift into a terrifying dark light disco session), much of the show is pure entertainment, sweetening the implied message of freedom to adapt gender to desire by revealing how much fun it can be.
The various caricatures of masculinity and femininity that drag deconstructs – the macho, the romantic artist, the camp gay male – are themselves melting in the mainstream thanks to the fire of feminism and gay liberation: the moments of predictability (a version of Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights routine, as seen in Peter McMaster’s entry to the Behaviour festival and in Boris and Sergei’s Vaudevillian Adventure this year and the on-stage temper tantrums that are a polite reflection of Ann Liv Young’s predictable melt-downs) are reminders that queer culture isn’t so alien: the similarities between (M)imosa and Victoria’s White Star Hotel, which came to Tramway over eight years ago suggest that the contested issues aren’t entirely marginalised. And there’s the recycling of recent pop culture into new meanings, a process that Simon Reynolds describes in Retromania and is pretty much the main strategy of pop, mainstream, alternative and underground.
Far from establishing a distinctive space where identity can be up for grabs, this version of the queer is recognisable as a manifestation of the same cultural practice that has Beyonce referencing vogue in her Sasha Fierce persona, or the questioning of authenticity as seen on Channel 4’s Faking It series. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, and it is part of that dominant hegemony’s talent to integrate the underground into its own agenda.
As Esson said in his introductory speech, the queer space is an alternative to discursive analysis – instead of arguing about gender identity, it dances around the subject, valuing fun and physicality over cerebral blather like this review. Harell and his co-creators (Cecilia Bengoles, Francois Chaignaud and Marlene Monteiro Freitas) groove and educate, even if they could have done with a good dramaturge to cut out the longeurs between the routines. They might not quite offer a genuine freedom, or abolish the tyranny of normative sexuality but they do promise a good time for the mind and the emotions.