On Trajal Harrell

What would it look like if the exotic and seductive belly dance-like spectacles of the late 19th century teamed up with your favourite playlist? The Museum of Modern Art Associate Curator Ana Javenski explores the career and inspirations of dancer and choreographer, Trajal Harrell ahead of the first UK survey of his work.

In 1999 Trajal Harrell performed at Judson Church in New York, a three minute piece with a very long title: It is Thus From a Strange New Perspective That We Look Back on the Modernist Origins and Watch It Splintering into Endless Replication. It is the last line of an essay by the American art historian and critic Rosalind Krauss in the book The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths. Harrell walked, paused and gazed, while a small CD player was playing Yazoo's Ode to Boy. This marked the beginning of the artist's ongoing exploration of hypothetical hybrid of movements among postmodern dance, fashion and voguing.

Before coming to New York in 1998, Harrell enrolled in a drama club in junior high and high school in his hometown in Georgia, USA. He then went to Yale where he was involved in drama and theatre, but he soon realized that he wanted to work through his body rather than speak on stage; so he started studying dance.

He realized soon that he wanted to work through his body rather than speak on stage; so he started studying dance...

Caen Amour - Photo: Orpheas Emirzas

After graduating, at the end of the 90s, he came to New York and connected with Movement Research, a dance organization based in Judson Memorial Church in New York's West Village, at 55 Washington Square South. Between 1962 and 1966 - the church hosted a community of artists, choreographers, filmmakers and musicians who indelibly reshaped the aesthetic and political stakes of art-making in the 1960s. The performances were organized in the basement of the church, titled Concerts of Dance, in which participants could present unfinished work to one another and explore a series of movement strategies, inductively and collectively, and included performances by Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, Trisha Brown, Deborah Hay, Alex Hay, Fred Herko, Elaine Summers, David Gordon, Valda Setterfield, and many others. Judson's task-based performances constructed dances as completions of simple, discrete actions upon a given readymade object and pedestrian movements.

Trisha Brown, Homemade, Judson Memorial Church March 29, 1966. Photo: Peter Moore ©2012 Tang Teaching Museum. via Movement Research

Walking, standing and gazing were the Judson foundations in Harrell's early piece, but soon he became interested in fashion shows and voguing balls. Harrell was fascinated by elaborate productions of fashion shows and the performativity of runaway movements. He understood fashion as a way of thinking about how we relate to clothes and the body.

The voguing balls in Harlem provided another model of performance structure, rooted in the counter culture of drag dance competitions, with elaborate rituals and codes, in which contestants, adhering to a very specific category or theme, must ‘walk’ (much like a fashion model's runway) and are subsequently judged by criteria including the ‘realness’ of their drag, the beauty of their clothing and their dancing ability.

‘All the branches: the voguing, the runway, the material, the fashion, the minimalism, the art history, the visual arts: all this stuff is in here'

From Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church S . Photo: Karl Rabe

From Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church S . Photo: Karl Rabe

The artist drew the line connecting voguing, fashion and pedestrianism. ‘All the branches: the voguing, the runway, the material, the fashion, the minimalism, the art history, the visual arts: all this stuff is in here – sexuality, sexual orientation, cross-dressing. It's a life's work to untangle them and to assemble them in different ways.’

Since then, Harrell has been investigating the possibilities and potentials of various solutions by assembling a set of cross-disciplinary and trans-historical elements and mobilizing them through choreography. This is present in his earlier pieces like Notes on Less than Zero (2004) – an investigation of ‘coolness’- Showpony (2007) – structured as a fashion show – and Quartet for the End of Time (2009) which draws its name and much of its inspiration from the music Olivier Messiaen famously composed in a Nazi war camp, while the body was mediated through slideshows of bodies and models.

'What would happen if one of the early postmodernist dancers and choreographers of Judson Church had gone uptown to perform in the voguing ballroom scene in Harlem?'

Harrell seemed haunted by the fact that voguing and the Judson era of postmodern dance started around the same historical time in the 1960’s—one downtown in Greenwich Village and one uptown in Harlem – and had never crossed paths.

Even in his early works Harrell used to imagine these two worlds joined together in political and aesthetic dialogues, but it was in 2008 that he launched his famous proposition: ‘What would have happened if someone from the voguing scene from Harlem would have come downtown to meet the pioneers of Postmodern Dance at Judson Dance Theatre in the early sixties?’

The question originated a long term project Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church, including work that come in seven sizes, from extra small (XS) to extra large (XL). In the last work from the series, Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem (Made-to-Measure) from 2013, Harrell has inverted the proposition by asking: ‘What would happen if one of the early postmodernist dancers and choreographers of Judson Church had gone uptown to perform in the voguing ballroom scene in Harlem?’

Still from Jennie Livingston's Paris is Burning (1990)

Still from Jennie Livingston's Paris is Burning (1990)

The title of the series is a clear reference to the 1990 American documentary film directed by Jennie Livingston, responsible for introducing the underground voguing ball culture of working-class gay, black and Latino nightclubs in Harlem during the 1970s and '80s to a broader audience, offering a thoughtful exploration of race, class, gender, and sexuality.

Trailer for Paris is Burning (1990)

‘What would have happened if someone from the voguing scene from Harlem would have come downtown to meet the pioneers of Postmodern Dance at Judson Dance Theatre in the early sixties?’

Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem (Made-to-Measure). Photo: Paula Court

In all the series, Harrell dismantles the normative way of thinking that the world is organized under the fixed modality of gender; fashion and dance – the territory of exploration of what can be interchangeable or common. Particularly poignant is his solo Small where on a runway setting Harrell changes both his clothes and his body language, moving between sexy and shy, the legendary and the everyday, creating a fractured self-portrait of surfaces and interiors. For the bigger sizes he introduces Antigone, the heroine of the Greek drama, who can also shift categories of gender, sexuality and race.

Clip from Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church

'Harrell works with historical imagination as a way to rethink how to process and interpret our pasts'

‘Judson reunited middle and upper-middle class artists and audiences, white and culturally selective, politicized and convinced of the democratic scope of their privilege for an everyday gesture and body – one that was neutral and full of ‘authenticity’, Harrell explains. The voguing ballrooms brought together poorer artists and audiences, non-white, inspired by pop and fashion culture and search for the ‘realness’ of gesture.’ While dance history includes Judson Dance Theater, voguing has been omitted. Harrell's engagement with history is yet far from ‘filling historical gaps.’ He questions contemporary dance by problematizing history, its construction, and its interpretation. The idea of deconstructing, reconfiguring and re-imaging the existing forms and asking what else it can be forms the basis of his thinking, creating new genealogies and capacious space of possibilities.

Performance is the place where those possibilities become relevant and their actualization becomes, in some ways, feasible. Starting from the premise that history is always partly a fiction, Harrell works with historical imagination as a way to rethink how to process and interpret our pasts. He is not interested in a totally fictionalized history, but rather in alternative realities and angles.

Music holds a crucial role in his pieces. Harrell loves soundtracks and playlists; with an ardor of a teenager locked in his bedroom, he is addicted to compiling music. Music often defines the dramaturgy of the piece and he works on both Garageband and iTunes, making it another everyday element in his pieces.

Video clip from Antigone Snr

While still working on Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church, Harrell started to investigate and intertwine other elements from the Japanese dance form butoh and the Japanese fashion designer and founder of the iconic fashion brand Comme des Garçons, Rei Kawakubo into his fictional meetings. As Harrell learned more, the project transformed to focus on the life and work of Japanese choreographer Tatsumi Hijikata (1928–1986), a pioneer of butoh, a dance form created in part to resist the conservatism permeating the choreography of postwar Japan.

Hijikata situated butoh as an outlaw, literary, and surrealist dance form, drawing on themes of death, criminality and abjection. Harrell started working on the Hijikata archive, almost by accident, in 2012, during his visit to Japan. Harrell claims that he initially resisted visiting the archive, but when he finally gave in, he was ‘blown away’ by the photographs, costumes, and other traces of Hijikata’s experimental performances.

This discovery lead to a new series of works initiated by the piece Used, Abused, and Hung Out to Dry (2013) commissioned and performed at The Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) in conjunction with the exhibition Tokyo: The New Avant-Garde 1945-197. Since voguing became his theoretical lens, Harrell opted for voguing Hijikata in the space of a museum lobby after museum hours, with a public invited to leave their shoes in the museum corridor before entering the performance space.

He had the opportunity to develop this new strand of work throughout his two year Annenberg Research Commission Residency at MoMA, entitled In one step are a thousand animals, a quote from Hijikata. Judson and butoh – not to mention the voguing scene – are dance forms that challenged the conventional theatre tradition of the proscenium stage. Although Harrell has performed in many different places including art galleries, MoMA provided a new opportunity to experiment with various spaces, formats and museum conventions. While dance performances are traditionally presented on a stage, at a given time, for a fixed duration, and in front of a seated audience, exhibitions are mounted in spaces that are accessible during regular gallery or museum hours, over several weeks or months, allowing visitors to move about and come and go freely.

The first iteration of the residency, The Practice, provided a rare access to his creative process. Utilising small, raised Marley platforms, already present in some iterations of Twenty Looks, Harrell worked with the dancers during the opening hours of the museum, addressing the public and his peers among the audience, explaining that it was not a piece, nor a rehearsal but an open-ended collaborative play with his dancers and collaborators. The Practice raised questions in terms of movement, time, practice, performance, process, visibility, the problem of premieres versus the brilliance of just working, and finally what dance in museums can make visible that other combinations of media/processes and spaces cannot.

'I am discovering how I want to dance and practice dancing, perhaps for a long time to come. So, I compare it to falling in love with someone and making a commitment to the relationship'

Photo: Orpheas Emirzas

Harrell premiered a new solo during his residency, The Return of La Argentia (2015). This was not a re-enactment of Admiring La Argentina, the famous solo by butoh legend Kazuo Ohno (1906-2010), but a trigger to Harrell's performance. His choice to work on a specific, pre-existing performance was surprising. Harrell came to Ohno’s solo during his archival research on Hijikata who directed Admiring La Argentina when it premiered in Tokyo in 1977.

’Fictional archiving’ is a name Harrell gives to his creative process of researching and re-imagining the archives. It is revealing how he subsequently activates the historical source material he encounters, not for re-enactment, but so the material can be mobilized, interpreted and transformed in a new way.

Harrell never wears the costumes but presses the clothing again his body - he makes clear his refusal to reconstruction. The gap between his body and the clothing brings to life the historical fissures and absences at the base of his work. The artist's initial idea was that the residency would culminate in a performance dedicated to Yoko Ashikawa, a mysteriously disappeared butoh dancer and Hijikata's muse. Instead, the piece he produced towards the end of his tenure at MoMA was the performance, In The Mood For Frankie (2016).

Here, Yoko Ashikawa multiplied and dissipated into many different muses, including Hong-Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai, a pop singer Sade, as well as his frequent collaborators, Thibault Lac and Ondrel Vidlar.

In The Mood For Frankie(2017). Photo: Laurent Philippe

In The Mood For Frankie(2017). Photo: Laurent Philippe

Harrell explains, ‘In this Hijikata period, as I call it, I think, for better or worse, I am discovering how I want to dance and practice dancing, perhaps for a long time to come. So, I compare it to falling in love with someone and making a commitment to the relationship. Finally with Frankie, I was diving all the way in. Trying to commit fully to how I want to dance. And with the help of those muses trying desperately to accept myself in all my strengths and weaknesses.’

The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai is an encounter among the French choreographer Dominique Bagouet, Hijikata and Ellen Stewart, the founder of New York’s LaMama avant-garde theatre – and Caen Amour from 2016.

The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai. Photo: Orpheas Emirzas

The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai. Photo: Orpheas Emirzas

In Caen Amour, Harrell introduces the figure of Loie Fuller the pioneer of modern dance and hoochie koochie, a term first used to refer to the belly dance spectacles of the twentieth century which came out of the Chicago Art Fair in 1898. The dance spread from the United States becoming the synonym for seductive dance in oriental clothing. Loie Fuller was an American dancer based in Paris and introduced innovative serpentine and butterfly dances, where the body was hidden behind multiple layers of fabric and semi-transparent screens. In dance history, Fuller is often discussed in terms of her persona rather than her dance. Again, here Harrell refers to the history of dance, but this time focusing on where female artists are located within popular culture, entertainment, erotic dancing and also their exclusion.

Harrell refused to video In the Mood for Frankie, dwelling deeper into this idea of the fictional archive and highlighting the importance of oral history, community and constructing himself an incomplete archive, a porous history. The postcolonial feminist writer and scholar, Trinh T. Minh-ha had a big impression on Harrell during his studies, and frequently returns to this quote by her: ‘The story depends upon every one of us to come into being. It needs us all, needs our remembering, understanding, and creating what we have heard together to keep on coming into being.’

Trajal Harrell: Hoochie Koochie will be the first ever performative exhibition of Harrell’s work and will present an opportune moment to examine his entire body of work over a 17 year period. Despite his rising international reputation, he has rarely shown in the UK and so now it feels like a timely moment to capitalize on his recent Barbican residency during Station to Station: A 30 Day Happening in 2015.

This presentation will be a wonderful opportunity for visitors to be introduced to the work of Harrell and it’s rare to see a time span of dances shown together and to discover the connections and through-lines, as they relate to each other, other works of art, and the visitors’ own experiences and lives. Visitors have the opportunity to spend quality time with his body of work and instead of following a prescribed route they have the flexibility to roam and watch multiple performances at any one time.

'One of the really exciting aspects of a performance exhibition of this scope is that the work born in the past comes alive in the future. Performance is, in fact, only of the now. So in this incredible context of Barbican Art Gallery, this is, truly, something only of this moment. '

Trajal Harrell

About the exhibition

Trajal Harrell: Hoochie Koochie: A performance exhibition takes place in the Barbican Art Gallery from 20 July–13 August

This summer the Barbican presents the first major exhibition of Trajal Harrell’s work. The Art Gallery will be transformed into an immersive space, where eighteen dancers, including Harrell himself, showcase 14 live performances. Visitors are able to weave through these performances making their own route through the gallery space. The exhibition presents a unique opportunity to experience Harrell’s entire body of work (from 1999 through to the present day) in one place and at one time.

Opening hours
Every Thu–Sun: 20–23 Jul; 27–30 Jul; 3–6 Aug; 10–13 Aug
Thu & Fri 2pm–9pm; Sat & Sun 12noon–6pm
Gallery is closed on Mon to Wed
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Events & Workshops
Step into the dreamlike world of Trajal Harrell and uncover a series of imaginative encounters with our series of complementary events and workshops

In our Cinema, Three Looks with Trajal Harrell(25 Jul–8 Aug) showcases three films by or featuring artists and performers whose work has informed Trajal Harrell's own practice including Yvonne Rainer's Lives of Performers, Wong Kar-wai's Happy Together and Chiaki Nagano's Mr O's Book of the Dead.