Trajal Harrell lays bare the hootchy-kootchy in ‘Caen Amour’
Trajal Harrell’s three previous visits to the ICA have brought us episodes from his “Twenty Looks or Paris Is Burning at the Judson Church” series, which hypothesizes a 1963 meeting between the Harlem drag-ball scene and the early postmodern choreographers at Greenwich Village’s Judson Church. This time out, we’re getting his 2016 work “Caen Amour,” which imagines “a fictional encounter between early modern dance pioneer Loïe Fuller, butoh creator Tatsumi Hijikata, and Comme des Garçons founder Rei Kawakubo” in the guise of a hootchy-kootchy show. Additional inspirations include belly dancer Little Egypt, Argentine dancer La Argentina, and Vietnamese filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha. It’s a lot of concept to take in — you might want to just focus on the movement.
You enter the ICA’s Barbara Lee Family Foundation Theater at stage level en masse and make a counterclockwise circuit of the playing area, passing magazine covers featuring tennis greats Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic and French World Cup star Paul Pogba. You pass Harrell in the flesh (if you know him, expect a hug) and then a table laden with energy drinks (feel free to take one). Your destination will be a cushion on the stage floor or one of the regular orange theater seats. To a medley of American and European pop songs, Harrell, in a mid-calf black skirt, sways in front of the set, a rough-hewn blue and white façade that suggests a Greek village. He looks like a kid having a swell time.
An apparent audience member (identified in the post-show program as Rose Hegele) rises from her cushion and welcomes us to “the hootchy-kootchy show.” Everyone is handed a sheet of “Choreographer’s Notes.” There’s a sneak preview from dancers Thibault Lac and Ondrej Vidlar; then the lights come up and Hegele explains that, at given times, we’ll be welcome to come “backstage” (behind the Greek-village façade) and watch the action from there. She warns that there’ll be nudity (“Close your eyes — or don’t”); Harrell, who’s now sitting in the front row taking notes, assures us that “It’s all good.”
With that the show proper begins. The nudity, and the conventional hootchy-kootchy element, is supplied by Perle Palombe, who gyrates thinly veiled and at times bare-breasted. But “Caen Amour” belongs to Lac and Vidlar, who emerge in various, and often hilarious, intimations of women’s costumes as they combine male hootchy-kootchy with runway fashion and freestyle dancing. Lac is more angular and exaggerated, as when he punches the air with his shoulders; Vidlar has an easy grace that makes almost any movement look natural.
The “backstage” — which you passed as you entered the theater — is nothing special, apart from the Kellogg’s Corn Flakes boxes: rugs, props, masks, magazines, photographs, drawings, a pier glass, dancers changing costume. And though “Caen Amour” runs a modest 75 minutes, it is, like Harrell’s previous ICA show, “Antigone Sr. (L),” overstuffed with ideas that don’t always register. But Lac and Vidlar are worth watching. And when Harrell himself moves, words, even his, are redundant.
Choreography, Trajal Harrell. Set, Harrell and Jean Stephan Kiss. Lighting, Sylvain Rausa. Performed by Harrell, Thibault Lac, Perle Palombe, Ondrej Vidlar, and Rose Hegele. At: Institute of Contemporary Art, Barbara Lee Family Foundation Theater, Friday Sept. 21. Remaining performance: Sept. 22. Tickets $15-$25. 617-478-3103, www.icaboston.org