The Return of La Argentina

Ng Yi-Sheng

September 5, 2016

This piece is a good complement to Trajal Harrell’s other offering, In the Mood for Frankie: it’s a lot shorter (just over half an hour; a bonus track, we're calling it), and it’s being performed not in a dark enclosed space but in the natural sunlight of the afternoon.

Oh, and remember how I said there wasn’t that much spectacle in the previous piece? Not to worry: we get that here in spades. Not shovelfuls, maybe, but little sandcastle spades. We’re still being guided by an aesthetic of restraint.

We enter the space to find no-one present: just three piano stools, each a station for the dancer’s props. One of them’s this weird green and white lightbox that looks like a giant mahjong tile and periodically plays a convenience store welcome tune.

Then, almost imperceptibly, Trajal swishes in, eyes closed, clutching a dress to his breast. (I was going to say waltzed in, but I tried counting in the beats and it might have been 4/4 rather than 3/4.)

He sets down the dress, eats some potato chips from a chip bag, sips some OJ, and addresses us.

Trajal: I’ve learned that if I have a little bit of potato chip and I sip from two bottles of orange juice and I mix Greek yoghurt in a special bowl from Japan that’s been broken several times… if I mix it with a jam mixed from wild cherries and peppers picked in the woods of Vienna, and raw pistachio shells from Greece… the dance goes better.

Audience: (laughs)

Trajal: Let’s see if it works this time.

He’s trembling, by the way. He doesn’t stop, even when he’s mixing his yoghurt and jam. The result is that when the spoon scrapes along the bottom of the bowl, there’s a shimmering, shivering note.

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He eats slowly, ritually. He mounts some two dresses, one red and one black, onto his arms, so that they resemble nothing less than a mantilla, a Spanish shawl over his T-shirt. And he continues to play the bowl, still scraping it to the point of resonance, a bigger bowl now, almost like a bonze with a Buddhist bell.

And then the spoon flies out of his hand. (I could’ve been winded if I was sitting a few centimetres away.)

And he rises—he hops on one foot—his hands brush down the ruffles of his pants furiously—he assumes the arm-raised stance of a pissed-off flamenco dancer, eyes glaring like a Nio statue—he crushes his face into a paroxysm of intensity, eyes squeezed shut, tongue popping out the side of his mouth, the kind of O-face people make that makes them prominently unsuited for porn…

This is where I thank Vani for talking about Trajal’s affinity for the voodoo tradition, because he’s evidently referencing the practice of spirit possession here: the practice of channeling a loa and having it descend upon him, riding him…

And the loa herself in this case is La Argentina: Queen of the Castanets, an Argentine dancer and choreographer who elevated Spanish dance to a theatrical art in the early 20th century; who toured the world (including Singapore) and even taught Antonio Vargas’s own instructors, as we learned in The Last Bull. Now, that’s foreshadowing. ;)

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One can see why Trajal is fascinated by La Argentina. First, she was a direct influence and inspiration on the founder of butoh, Kazuo Ohno, who saw her perform as a student in Tokyo in 1926, and later praised her in his 1977 dance La Argentina Sho / Praising La Argentina.

Hence the Japanese Buddhist aspects of the ritual he’s created to summon her spirit: the bowl as bell, the monk-like robes, perhaps the minimalist space of this performance.

And second, La Argentina was something of a necromancer herself, bringing the art of Spanish dance back from the dead, as a contemporary noted:

The recent unexpected renaissance of Spanish dancing, an art whose creative power seemed to have been exhausted, is due primarily to the singular genius of one dancer, La Argentina.

But there’s nothing dark and macabre about this summoning of the dead. Keng Sen told me later he and Trajal had decided to play up a certain level of humour in the work. Hence the convenience store chimes, perhaps, which pop up periodically, as if to anchor this ritual in the realm of the quotidian.

And the serene rictus of a grin he adopts at the end, when a cellphone chimes in (I’d thought it was a member of the audience!), and with tasseled hands, he starts waving goodbye to us, retreating backwards, the same way he came.

I’ve gotta admit: this work is a lot easier to grasp than In the Mood for Frankie, where there was such a bewildering range of influences cited that it was next to impossible to pin down what came from where in terms of movement.

Still, what we’ve got is utterly global: Trajal Harrell, an American, draws on Afro-Caribbean traditions of magic and Japanese spiritual traditions to pay homage to La Argentina, an Argentinean who revived Spanish dance. There’s about five continents that came together to make that happen.

The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884-1942), 23 August 1928
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It does make me think, however, about how arbitrary Keng Sen’s thematic focus has been for SIFA: how he supposedly examined the theme of Legacies back in 2014, and is invested in Potentialities in 2016.

The truth is, he’s always fascinated by legacies of the greats, and always sees potentialities in resurrecting them.

Not that I object. Our history is one of amnesia, after all. Sometimes it’s good to look back, even as we move forward.

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  • 2016