Historical movement: a conversation with Trajal Harrell

© Tristan Fewings Getty

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Trajal Harrell wants us to imagine history together.

He’s primarily a choreographer and dancer, but his work also drinks in theatre, visual art, fashion and art history in a distinctive alchemy of emotionally powerful and theoretically intricate performance. Since achieving widespread recognition with the success of his Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church series, which juxtaposed the voguing dance tradition with that of early postmodern dance, he has come to be considered one of the most important choreographers of his generation, while also playing a central role in the development of dance’s own understanding of itself.

Harrell’s unbound curiosity and ability to think of dance differently are driving forces behind his ouevre, which is being drawn together this month in an ambitious survey of his work. Entitled Hoochie Koochie, the exhibition at London’s Barbican Centre covers his career from 1999 to 2016. Perhaps the single greatest contribution to be found there will be his repositioning of pedestrian movement from the runway and fashion world as a central part of the history of dance, but no doubt there will be a host of smaller, more personal contributions viewers can absorb too.

With the performance exhibition starting today, we caught up with Harrell to find out where his thinking is at ahead of this mammoth show, and what we can expect.

How do the works influence one another as part of the exhibition?

What’s exciting about doing this is that all of these works can be in conversation and clearly there are through lines. The first piece based on the idea of runway movement, voguing and early postmodern dance was a piece from 1999 that’s related to minimalism. I was trying to figure out what would happen if you made a minimalist voguing piece, because voguing is so flamboyant. In that piece I just walk, there’s no physical runway as I hadn’t yet started to work with structures, so it’s just graphic minimalism; I’m just walking, posing, standing and gazing. But this is like the seed that gets elaborated in the other works and you see how minimalism itself also gets elaborated upon and played with throughout. I work in very intense research periods so the works develop out of one another. I’m not the kind of artist where each work is completely different.

How do the different types of dance in the piece respond to one another?

I don’t blend movements. I know there’s been a lot of fusion work in the U.K, but I don’t do fusion. I’m usually dealing with very specific historical and theoretical operations. With voguing and early postmodern dance I am looking at the specific history of two traditions, and looking at the similarities and differences. Of course, what I’m looking at particularly is the theoretical underpinning, which is realness and authenticity, and pedestrianism too because they both use pedestrianism, and then looking at the history of runway movement because voguing was appropriating runway movement and fashion ideas. These were pedestrian movements and pedestrianism was kind of the hallmark of early postmodern dance. That’s fertile ground for me then to explore those tension as a way to create something in the here and now. I’m not at all trying to take early postmodern dance and voguing and put them together and make something. This is not my interest.

It’s the same with the new period of work, the Tatsumi Hijikata period where I’m looking at butoh [a kind of Japanese dance theatre that incorporates extreme movements] and early modern dance. I say I’m looking at butoh through the theoretical lens of voguing, and I’m looking at modern dance through the theoretical lens of butoh.

This is because modern dance, the early modern dance was highly influenced by a kind of orientalist gaze. All of those early dancers were looking to the orient for inspiration. And in butoh, although butoh was very anti-Western influenced, they were very inspired by modern dance. So here’s a kind of refractory gaze in which I can look. The Hoochie Koochie show, not the dance, which came out of a kind of orientalist fantasy by Westerners particularly in the United States, becomes a fertile ground to imagine what could a Hoochie Koochie show be, because of course, these two forms, now in our imagination, can inform that imaginative process. It’s not like taking things and pasting them together and making a pastiche. I’m not problematising that, I’m just saying that’s not what I’m doing. I’m looking at an imaginitive process in history and trying to ask what would be fertile ground for the imagination. I’m trying to get us to imagine things together, because in that space, there’s something interesting for me; something powerful that can happen.

Trajal Harrell – Hoochie Koochie
© Tristan Fewings Getty

Is this idea of realness and authenticity is a theoretical underpinning to all of your work?

No, it underpins the 20 Looks series. I think this realness of course is incorporated as I’m looking at butoh through the theoretical lens of voguing, but the authenticity from postmodern dance is not there because I’m looking at early modern dance. So from early modern dance, instead of taking what you would call authenticity, I’m looking at orientalism. By looking at the orientalism, I’m problematising my own gaze. The gaze we’re really problematising is mine because I’m the artist. Me looking at butoh could be seen as a kind of orientalism so I have to problematise that. Why am I interested in butoh? How do I look at it from my perspective? I have Japanese ancestry. All those things come into play. Also, really what I’m trying to get to in my own imagination is to reach an understanding of what dance was like before it knew of itself as an artistic form.

During this period of early modern dance, there was no modern dance, there was no Barbican Centre, there was no Sadler’s Wells, these people – these women, mostly women, were trying to make an artistic dance, certainly before we had all these institutional structures to support it, but even before we had modern dance. You have to imagine, there’s folk dancing, there’s religious dancing, there’s erotic dancing, there’s nationalistic dancing, but there’s also this idea or this sense that people want to have an individual expression dance, and what is that, and how do you do that, where does that come from? I’m interested in that, and of course my interest is not in reproducing what they made, my interest is in that as a formal tactic to see: what would I make that’s dance before it knew of itself as dance?

Was it tempting to alter those early works retrospectively?

No. I just started to install today. It’s the same thing when you put the work in a theatre, each time you do it, you work on it; I believe that that is the work. I don’t work in video, I work in live performance so every time, we’re trying to set the circumstances to invigorate this present moment. Of course some things are going to change because I’m a different person, they’re different dancers, and that has to be reflected in the work for it to be alive today. I’m not interested in showing the work as a photograph or as a video of what it was: I want it to be alive today, but using the same forms that I was using when I made the work, even if that work was in 1999.

In some of your work there is an informality to the opening and closing of a piece, you might mingle among the audience. Can we expect that here?

We’re there in amongst the people, but this is performance. You have to learn how to perform that way. We say hello to friends, we wave from the stage, but all of this is trained. This is dealing with realness in voguing. It looks like it’s unscripted but in fact we know what the parameters are and how to perform this kind of non-performance.

In this performance, we’re not playing with who is in the performance and who is not, because we don’t have that kind of space. We’re not in a theatre and we don’t have a captured audience: the people can move amongst the pieces so I want them to really be able to see and reflect upon the pieces. I’m not interested in confusing the viewer’s space. But of course, I wouldn’t say that the performers have to not ignore the audience – if they see someone they know, they could stop and talk. We try as much as possible to be in the moment we’re in and bring the audience into that moment but those choices have to be very precise and the performers have to be very astute to make choices that are precise, that don’t look so controlled and so pre-thought.

“Runway movement – the défilé, the french word for it – was in the court of Louis XIV in the same place that ballet was being developed”

Is it important to distinguish between dance and theatre?

It depends on who you talk to. I have always worked between dance, theatre and visual arts and I’ve always come from theatre, I came from theatre as a young kid. The next production I’m doing is with the Munich Kammerspiele, called Juliet and Romeo and I do it with dancers and five people from the Kammerspiele ensemble.

It has to do with the perspective of the viewer and the audience. You have people seated and there’s an agreed upon idea that they will sit and watch you for a certain amount of time. Not so in a gallery. There’s a certain sense of liveness all around you. The value system about time and mobility changes, that’s what’s essential and I like working with both of those things at different times.

Martha Graham always said that before theatre was a noun it was a verb, so the idea was that theatre was not about this pretend thing of being someone else, but there was a kind of activation with the audience, a kind of usage of the noun. I think of this as togetherness: how do we activate this togetherness? This is an action, it’s not a place, nor is it a representation of something.

How about fashion?

I have brought runway movement into dance as dance – a central part of this history of dance. This is a very complicated manoeuvre because of course it’s loaded with ideas that come from the fashion industry and the connotations of this and how people relate to it, and modelling. But runway movement – the défilé, the french word for it – was in the court of Louis XIV in the same place that ballet was being developed. Still to this day at the Paris Opera, when they begin the season, the dancers come in and do a défilé. So this was already in the history of dance but somehow it gets separated into the fashion industry.

When did you know you were interested in doing a survey of this kind?

I was invited to do it and it was a great invitation. I never imagined that someone would do that at this point. Of course, I had done the series. There’s been three places which have done the whole series, but I hadn’t had an idea that someone would want to do a survey of the work from 1999 to 2016. I was honoured, very excited and happy. I’ve been working on drawing connections and tying things together and now I get to share that with other people and I’m going to learn so much about the work because it’s going to be in the world. It’s going to be truly exciting.

Hoochie Koochie is at the Barbican Centre until 13 August.

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