Philosopher/choreographer Trajal Harrell started it all by asking what would have happened if, in 1963, someone from the voguing drag-ball scene in Harlem had gone downtown to Washington Square to perform at the Judson Church with the early postmodern choreographers. His answer is the long-term project “Twenty Looks or Paris Is Burning at the Judson Church,” which now comes in seven sizes, from “XS” to “L” and including “jr,” “Plus,” and “M2M” (made to measure). Harrell brought the solo “S” to the ICA in 2010 and the “(M)imosa” “M” in 2013. Friday, the ICA hosted “L,” which runs two hours and 20 minutes with no intermission. As Harrell said at one point, “We’re taking our time.”
The ostensible subject of “L” — also “jr” and “Plus” — is Sophocles’s “Antigone,” in which the title heroine defies her uncle Kreon’s edict that her brother Polyneikes, who died fighting for the kingship of Thebes, must remain unburied. Fragments of the plot do get narrated — not always accurately — in the course of the show. But the real topic of the “Twenty Looks” series is the face-off between Judson choreographer Yvonne Rainer’s 1965 “No Manifesto” — no to glamour and spectacle and stardom in dance — and Harlem ball culture’s unapologetic yes. (The “Paris Is Burning” part of the project’s title alludes to Jennie Livingston’s 1990 Harlem-ball-culture documentary.) Harrell is asking what’s the difference between Judson “authenticity” and a drag ball’s “realness”? Why can’t a runway show — the epitome of glamour and spectacle and stardom — be dance? And who’s to say that whatever movements the Chorus of Sophocles’s “Antigone” executed in 441 B.C. didn’t look more like voguing than postmodernism?
Certainly “Antigone Sr.” has extraordinary dancers, five men including Harrell. (Women didn’t appear on Sophocles’ stage, or for that matter Shakespeare’s.) But the show can’t start till Thibault Lac sings the “House Anthem,” Britney Spears’ “. . . Baby One More Time.” (In a nice touch, Stephen Thompson stands listening with his right hand over his heart.) Then Lac, Thompson, Ondrej Vidlar, and Camille Durif Bonis strut their stuff on set designer Erik Flatmo’s three rectangular “islands” until Harrell, off-stage, yells, “Stop the show! Stop the show! Stop the [expletive] show.” (“Antigone Sr.” says yes to profanity.) And then, as the window shades descend, blotting out the harbor and plunging the Barbara Lee Family Foundation Theater into darkness, we hear, “There’s an icon in the house. The icon is here to battle. It’s about to be a Greek tragedy in here.” In other words, Antigone has arrived, and the real show can start.
It’s a bit of a mash-up. Harrell and Lac engage in an extended duet of “We are . . . ,” starting with “Jay Z and Kanye West” and going through “Victoria and her secret” and “sex and the city” before ending with “Princess Antigone and Princess Ismene,” Ismene being the sister who didn’t challenge Kreon’s edict. Following a rendition of the Middle East’s “The Darkest Side,” the runway shows begin — “The King’s Speech,” “The Mother of the House” — while Lac unspools strings and runs them from the stage into the audience, climbing on the backs of seats. The fashions are appropriately outrageous, ranging from little nothings to barely there; when Lac enters in a pair of scarves (“Fake Hermès”) tied together, Harrell shouts, “It’s all about the briefs,” whereupon Lac removes the briefs and, swinging his hips, exits.
“Antigone” takes a bad turn when Harrell starts milking the audience for adoration; the result is a stand-up clap-along to “The Roof Is on Fire” with the light trees blinding the audience. This leads to another bout of fine dancing, much of it in semi-darkness, to the likes of PJ Harvey’s “Is This Desire?” and Eurythmics’ “This City Never Sleeps.” After that, however, the show loses steam. For all that it purports to enfranchise the women of ancient Greece, “Antigone Sr.” is not about saying no to the House of Thebes, it’s about saying yes to the House of Trajal.
Antigone Sr./Twenty Looks or Paris Is Burning at the Judson Church (L)
Created by Trajal Harrell. Set, Erik Flatmo. Lighting, Jan Maertens. Performed by Harrell, Camille Durif Bonis, Thibault Lac, Stephen Thompson, and Ondrej Vidlar. At Institute of Contemporary Art, Barbara Lee Family Foundation Theater, March 25. Tickets $15-$30, 617-478-3103, www.icaboston.org
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.