O Medea, Trajal Harrell

5 people dancing seated, faces in something between pain and exctacy, they're all wearing dark drapes with pink rose prints and their faces, hands and feet are the only skin seen.
Image illustrates O Medea, by Trajall Harrell who is also in the shot
O Medea, Trajall Harrell (c) unknown

I love Trajall Harrell’s work; how it makes me feel in the moment, the layering, level of detail, lyricism and patterning. I value it most for what it teaches me, which is why I do my best to see the same thing three or four times. Each visit reveals different aspects and referents. It makes me question my own knowledge, makes me think. From that I grow. Last night’s trilogy met expectations. Aspects are already clear, and experience tells that the meaning of details and relationships between them will dawn on me over the days and weeks to come. Less so with the film section, which is called O Medea.

When I see dance, I choose what to look at. Faces, bodies, movement language, props and patterning, light and shade, the shapes the dancers (or their absence) make, how they work with each other within the space, feedback from audience, artistic virtuousity, the audience themselves, what’s happening with the fourth wall and more.

When I shoot dance, I see and think differently. If I want to show how it feels, the framing’s important. To reflect the choreography I need to know the work well. To show the work’s intentions means doing something else. My attention is also distracted far more than when I’m just watching. Coincidence. Environment. The interplay of light and shadow. Backstage preparation. Half-glimpsed movement. How the dancers and crew behave in the wings.

As a photographer, my artistic essence is in the capture of movement, on subtle gradations of stillness, light, shadow, context and mood. It is about stringing together series of captured moments, on directing the viewers’ attention. There’s a constant tension and choice between telling the story of my perceptions, my understanding of the choreographer’s intentions, something abstract, creating an entirely new lens-based story that is only coincidentally using choreography set and dancers, or a balance of these things. And because I’m a storyteller, I’m drawn to chance captures and stories in miniature. I record the reflection of clouds, light and shade in a building, captured moments of the team behind scenes partly to excorcise irrelevancies, and partly because they reflect my view as I live in that precise moment. They may be tempting sources of fascination or beauty. They may be naïve. They may even be old ideas or clichéd. That some might not reflect the performance at all makes them no less compelling.

I’m often frustrated with dance films. I can’t see the filmmaker’s art if I don’t know the full story. Sometimes they appear to pay little heed to things that matter to me. Reinventing the wheel can be great when intentional, and sometimes when not. Raw is fine. Deconstructed too. Context is useful. And meaning. I understand that filmic art on one genre doesn’t necessarily match another. But is it artistically consistent to create great dance with enormous consideration of history, dance, fine art and culture, then record it without the same consideration of the film maker’s art? The exigiencies of the pandemic and lockdown often meant minimal planning followed by intense labour during post-production and I’m not always reconciled to how that panned out.

To me O Medea is not fine-art or documentary. It doesn’t give me the chance to get properly into the choreography, the intent, the lens-based artist’s take or what went on behind the scenes. Instead it is a series of snapshots. Snapshots of the workings and choreography of an awesome artist, but snapshots nonetheless. The reflection of a bird of prey felt more symptomatic of a pre-lockdown wish to be free than a considered post-modern interpretation of the heroine Medea (although as I write, I see it could be both). I liked where the entire screen segued into spherical soft focus, because the lyricism of the dancers’ motions and their patterning was emphasised. More so since there were no details to see. Howeveer, I mostly found the film frustrating, and missed the in-depth knowledge, multiple layers and references that I would normally expect.

Will more layers and levels dawn on me in the days and weeks to come? Am I expecting too much? Am I merely projecting my own personal strivings as I fight against the allure of the not-quite-reflections and snatched-but-meaningless-moments to transmit meaning in my own image-based work? Does it matter that this film doesn’t give me the depth that I’ve come to expect from the artist? Am I expecting too much from a pandemic-era film? Let me know in the comments below.

This review covers the middle part of Porca Miseria, the rest of which is live. It continues at the Barbican today and tomorrow https://www.barbican.org.uk/whats-on/2023/event/trajal-harrell-porca-miseria-triple-bill

and this seems to be his entire schedule https://betatrajal.org/news.html