Folie à Cinq: Trajal Harrell on The Scarlet Letter at Centre Pompidou

In his latest debut at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, Trajal Harrell reinterprets, reacts to, and gives contemporary flair to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s
The Scarlet Letter. I smiled and laughed and cried and I don’t think I even like dance very much! 


Act One: Fornication- 

Trajal Harrell and his quintet begin to dance-chase each other almost messily, they run at and away from one another with a concentrated playfulness, an oscillation of emotion and connection in their movements. They lift up their arms, as if covering their view, and then release, push and pull, back and forth, and they all seem a bit.. disturbed? The dichotomy of human desire and of integrated purantism seem to be fighting each other on stage. Together they emanate an intentional chaos and an unpredictable harmony that is not unlike the murmuration of birds. I think this is pretty much what sex is like. 

Throughout this first act Harrell’s hands are open and shaking, and he seems to navigate the stage more singularly amongst his dancers. Their dance softens, like giving in, and the performers then come together in a cluster, writhing orgasmically- but it’s not as obvious or vulgar as it sounds. With equal talent in their theater as is in their movement, the performance captures a much more profound elegance.  

Harrell, in his black robe, exits the stage and I am reminded of a French expression for orgasm which is la petite mort– a little death. Reentering with armfuls of clothes, he passes them to the other dancers who hold them up to their bodies like trying out new skins. Harrell dances adjacent to them gracefully and freely like a ghost of something exorcized, beautiful and blissful, until the music fades. 

Act Two: Education-

Sitting in chairs and dressed like pilgrims, this second act which begins set to somber operatic music is much more reserved and theatrical. 

The dancers heavily stand up, sit down, listen, and pray, over and over again. They turn to one another nodding deeply, one’s movements inform the others- a dramatic expression of active listening. In the middle we have the impression that one performer is our teacher, almost pleading with his students. Their hands mimic reading books whose pages carry a force which might lift them off their chairs and take them somewhere new, their arms anchoring them down. As they turn to one another and share their books, “Into My Arms” begins to play and although I don’t recognize it until Nick Cave begins to sing I am already smiling from ear to ear. They get up and dance together, lifting their teacher into joyous and clumsy jetés, they are smiling too- an energy which transitions and follows into the next act. 

Act Three: Celebration-

At first my interpretation was that this piece would be something very reactionary and on-the-nose, but it is far more playful, nuanced and sort of super chic? A row of benches with piles of clothes set the final scene and the dancers enter- catwalk ready. 

Harrell walks flat footed in slow circles, following spiraling ellipses lightly marked on the stage throughout the piece as his dancers dress and undress in probably one hundred different combinations of the clothes that are strung about. Modern sportswear pieces adjacent to simple silhouettes in a subdued pilgrim-pallette are interjected with rainbow fringe, fun prints, and often the dancers just hold the pieces up to their bodies, strutting up and down the stage on tip-toes. A pensant dress strung around and clipped at the waist turns into an apron skirt, a sweater lazily bunched on top of the head makes a pretty turban. A barrister’s wig makes its way into the mix too. It’s kind of giving Comme des Garçons? I’m surprised that their frantically tugged, pulled on and thrown-together looks are kind of more interesting than a lot of what’s seen on the actual runways. 

Without making banal comparisons to modernity and antiquity, to expression and multifacetedness as triumph in the face of oppressive puritanism- their performance is at once politically loaded, elegant and fresh. I am having fun, they seem to be having fun too, maybe that’s all the same thing. 

Although each dancer is remarkable in their talent, Harrell’s personal performance is strikingly singular, almost more akin to durational performance art. As he marches in a pilgrim-collared cocoa dress, he trembles and looks disturbed (maybe just concentrating). Harrel maintains an intense and darker stage presence which matches the level of grace, freedom, and lightness embodied in the first act, giving the audience a hefty dose of his masterful range as both choreographer and dancer. I want to see more! 


Rianna Murray

American in Paris. Interested in Art and Fashion.