American choreographer Trajal Harrell has made his name with performances that are more like animated installations than theatrical presentations. His shows are often interested in the stylised performance of gender, in marginalised or exoticised figures, and in dance forms that remain uncanonised by institutional theatre, such as club dance, sideshow acts and especially voguing.
Voguing is in vogue right now thanks to the TV drama Pose. Viewers may recognise key elements from that series in Harrell’s latest work, Maggie the Cat: runway model walks, image categories, outré outfits, turntable music, larger-than-life hosts who act as urbane shamans. Here, Harrell and Perle Palombe are our hosts, he in a robe of floral prints, she in patterned shirt and breeches. Together, they boogie along, riff on song lyrics, and egg on their nine dancers to further acts of, well, catwalking.
For the show itself is essentially a parade of catwalks in which the dancers, like children playing dress-up, fashion costumes from cushions, towels, curtains and bedcovers, and sashay about in them. The soundtrack layers electro and trance, free jazz, and swing, and though the dancers act out different attitudes – haughty swaggers, kittenish come-ons, a hoity-toity cakewalk – their aim remains resolutely the same: strut that stuff.
So why call it Maggie the Cat? The name is inspired by the lead character in Tennessee Williams’s play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, from which Harrell takes his cue. He and Palombe dub themselves Big Mama and Big Daddy, and the dancing, to borrow from voguing terminology, is like a series of poses in the category “Maggie the Cat”.
That makes it sound more interesting than it is, which is pretty much the problem: substantial ideas, thin material. There are well-made points about race, class, gender, style and space – in the programme notes. On stage, moments of potential significance – a footbath that leaves the performers trailing faint marks on the floor, a curtain call that replaces the cobbled-together costumes of printed fabrics and soft furnishings with chic black – become just another catwalk. This is dance as image, not action: compositionally flat, dramatically inert.