In an impressive dance career that has spanned more than a decade, New York-based choreographer Trajal Harrell has no doubt benefitted from countless artistic encounters. And yet, the meeting that has had perhaps the greatest impact on his work never took place. The early postmoderns working mostly on New York City’s Lower East Side in the 1960s never encountered the dancers strutting in Harlem’s vogue balls at the same time. But what if they had?
This question is at the foundation of Harrell’s project Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church, one iteration of which, Antigone Sr., will have its Canadian premiere on June 2 at the Festival TransAmériques. Harrell and I discussed his daringly imaginative work in anticipation of the performance.
Fabien Maltais-Bayda: Something that appears central in your work is the idea of the encounter. Something that interests me is the variety of scales on which encounters occur: for example, there’s the level of cultural encounter between different movement traditions throughout Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church, or there’s the interpersonal encounter between four artists in the (M)imosa iteration of the project (presented at the FTA in 2012). So I’m wondering if you could speak to how you view the encounter, and how it structures your work.
Trajal Harrell: I mean, it is what it is; it was a means for producing. In (M)imosa we were four different people, four different artists, coming from four different perspectives. And this produced a lot of different kinds of tension, and I think that that is what really made the work interesting. These differences could not be resolved, and we didn’t try to resolve them. I think often in such projects there is a sense that the performers try to resolve their differences in this kind of utopian performance, and I think those projects that attempt to do this also often fail in the not-so-good way.
One of the things we discovered, maybe a little further than half way on, is that we weren’t going to resolve our differences through consensus. It’s kind of a series of solos. There are some sections in which we began to interlink things, but it is basically a lot of different solos and songs that we all performed. And that came from mostly working alone, rather than working together. I think the resulting tensions, which we let breathe within the work, are what made it so strong.
FMB: This idea of the tensions that arise among varying approaches leads me to question the choreographic process that resulted in Antigone Sr., which you will be presenting at the Festival TransAmériques this week, as well as your process more broadly. When we think about the two movement traditions you are working with, the early postmoderns at Judson and the voguing culture that emerged in Harlem around the same time, they seem to have very different approaches to choreography and performance.
In postmodernism, there was a lot of discussion around the choreographic repertoire that is set on, or activated by, bodies, which Julia Bryan-Wilson writes about with regard to Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A. Alternatively, in voguing, the approach seems much more rooted in improvisation, and the individual performing subject. So in your process, how do you navigate the dialectic between these methodologies?
TH: The encounter that I have been most interested in, is really looking at the runway as a kind of architectural space in which those two things could meet, thereby looking at the gestural movement, the pedestrian movement, and also the history of the fashion spectacle and its relationship to choreographic practice. Another thing I look at is the relationship between authenticity, coming out of the early postmodern dance, and the theoretical idea of realness coming from voguing. When you look at these two words, they might look similar. But of course, realness does not pretend to be authentic.
FMB: And how do these threads come together in the actual work of choreography with your dancers?
TH: The main thing I work on is performativity. I’m working on questions surrounding: why are we performing? How are we performing? What is at stake right now in the performance? We work on this for a very long time. In the case of Antigone Sr., we had some texts which I wrote that we had to enliven. In some cases I create situations, or I create movement patterns. The dancers would improvise on these, and I would choose things, and edit it, and repeat it, and it becomes set. It’s a little traditional in some ways, although, I definitely don’t make steps.
FMB: Now, I wanted to return to what you said about the space of the runway. Your work often deals with space and time, and what is possible within, and outside of, those constructs. So how does that idea of place affect your work, both in the abstract and in the actual structure of the place where dancing happens?
TH: It was a very big decision to work on the runway. It took six years of experimentation, just figuring out how to work within this kind of trajectory and this kind of architectural space, to establish what it could hold. I asked the question: if I confine myself there, and to the history of runway movements, what would that produce.
I remember the first experiments I did in the early 2000s. The idea was to deal with runway movement as if it was ballet. And this was before all the modelling shows that we have now. I would find tapes from fashion shows, and we would watch specific models, and then try to find them in other shows. We would really try to understand the articulation of their movements, and we would try to learn it as if it was ballet. And by this I mean we viewed it as a movement vocabulary that could be codified.
But this wasn’t standard, of course, in contemporary dance of the time, and it certainly was not validated. A lot of people did not consider the type of practice I was involved in at the time valid as contemporary dance. I think part of the issue was that the movement space I was creating was one in which the performance of gender was slippery. I wasn’t taking from male runway movements, I was taking from women. And even though there was already writing then by people like Peggy Phelan and Judith Butler, it wasn’t until later that people began to come around to the work.
I think a lot of it was because the trans movement became more visible, so that created a larger understanding. Of course, a lot was being written about performativity and gender performance, and not just in academia. Also in élite performing circles, people started reading a lot of that material. They began to develop a different way of looking at what I was doing, whereas before, people were very suspicious of it. I think they needed these kinds of other articulations to understand. I had studied with bell hooks, I had read a lot of different things, so I understood the potentiality here, and I also knew that kind of appropriation I was working with had already been happening in the visual arts. But dance tends, in terms of its critical discourse, to not move as fast as the visual arts.
FMB: Another question I’d like to ask has to do with your source material. You’re working with Antigone, and in a previous interview, you discussed how engaging with Greek theatre provided an opportunity to expand dialogue with the audience. I’m wondering if you could elaborate on that observation, and discuss how this theatrical tradition impacts your ideas on how an audience and a performance interact?
TH: What I was speaking about there, is that we were really trying to do this piece how they did it in the ancient Greek theatre. And in that tradition, there was a different relationship – a different importance that the spectator had in relation to the performance. Martha Graham often talked about this, how theatre wasn’t a noun, it was a verb. The performance is something that we make together, it’s an alchemy that happens in the room between performers and audiences, and so this is what I’m always trying to do. I’m bringing people back to that live moment in which we are all doing theatre as a verb.
FMB: Now, your work, in addition to its conviviality, is also quite pointedly political, dealing specifically with race, gender, and sexuality. What impact are you aiming to have, or what are you trying to elicit from the audience, in this regard?
TH: With every audience there’s something different going on. I’ve done this piece in a lot of different countries, so I know that there are certain things that happen, and certain things that repeat themselves. And I’m aware that the work proposes particular questions and possibilities, but I really try to stay focused on this idea of performativity. What we are there to offer, is a performance. It’s not a political tract, it’s not an education system, it’s not a healthcare system. It is a performance, and I try to stay very clear that that’s what I make.
Now, taking that into account, I believe that art does have the potential to enliven our imaginations, so that’s what interests me. I want people to walk out of my performances with the possibility of a larger imagination, because I think the imagination is an incredible tool for solving some of the problems we have in the world. But I don’t try to point that imagination in a specific direction. I think if I, as an artist, just keep feeding the public imagination, that has some worth in our society. So everything in the work then, whether it be the political nexus, or the social nexus, or the emotion, all of it aims to question how we can think about impossibility (something the visual artist, Tania Brugera, inspired in me after hearing her speak once), and how the imagination can be larger.
Antigone Sr. will be performed June 2, 3, and 4 at 8 p.m. at Usine C. Visit the FTA website for tickets and more information.
Fabien Maltais-Bayda is a writer, editor and cultural worker.