Interviews

Trajal Harrell

Trajal Harrell, Used, Abused, and Hung Out to Dry, 2013. Performance view, Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 13, 2013. Photo: Yi-Chun Wu.

Trajal Harrell’s Twenty Looks or Paris Is Burning at the Judson Church, 2009–2013, seven works investigating a speculative collision between the traditions of voguing and postmodern dance, has become one of the most influential dance series of the past five years. From September 14–20 at the Kitchen, as part of FIAF’s Crossing the Line festival, the seven performances will be done in order, at the same theater, one work each day, beginning with (XS) on the 14th and ending with (M2M) Judson Church Is Ringing in Harlem on the 20th.

But before then, on September 4-5, Harrell kicks off “In one step are a thousand animals,” his two-year Annenberg Research Commission Residency at the Museum of Modern Art, with The Practice, an open-ended generation of dance material. Here, Harrell speaks about his research residency and the consequences of Twenty Looks.

FOR FIFTEEN YEARS I’ve been looking at how to use voguing as a theoretical lens. It’s like ballet training, this investigation. For the past five, the foreground of my work has solely been about the relationship between early postmodern dance and the voguing tradition. This exploration was prompted by a question—“What would have happened in 1963 if someone from the voguing ballroom scene in Harlem had come downtown to perform alongside the early postmoderns at Judson Church?”—which grew into the group of works known as Twenty Looks or Paris Is Burning at the Judson Church.

The seven performances that make up the series will be shown in order over a course of a week, one each day, at the Kitchen. It was shown in its entirety once before, in Vienna, but in different theaters, and not in order. I never thought that anyone would be able to put the whole thing on here in New York. The production aspect of it is huge. The casts are different for each version. The Kitchen and Crossing the Line are crazier than I am. I call it my grand slam, like I'm getting ready to do my US Open.

But for my work now, this idea of what would have happened in 1963 is done. Today I’m looking at Butoh through the theoretical lens of voguing. My residency at MoMA, titled “In one step are a thousand animals,” developed out of a work I did at the Museum of Modern Art last year called Used, Abused, and Hung Out to Dry. The question there was, “How do you vogue Hijikata?”

It began with me looking at how the appropriation of the fashion spectacle through voguing has influenced my work. I was thinking about when the Japanese came to the Paris fashion shows in 1981. If you read the way people spoke about that, the way it’s mythologized, it’s very similar to the way people speak about Butoh, as part of this violent, post-atomic aesthetic.

I wondered if there was any relationship between those fashion designers—Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto—and Butoh. I began doing research in Japan, trying to draw a map between Comme des Garçons and Butoh. I played six-degrees-of-separation with people I met, to see if I could meet Rei Kawakubo, to ask her personally. Of course, Kawakubo is reclusive, and the idea was not necessarily that I would meet her. It was more that this would be a great way to encounter people in Japan and research dance.

I had a Fellowship for the Saison Foundation in Tokyo. They asked, “Why don’t you go to the archives of [Butoh pioneer Tatsumi] Hijikata?” And I said, “I don’t want to go to the archives of Hijikata. It’s too conventional. I want to play this weird game and meet people and have strange and interesting conversations.” But one day, I relented, I said, “Okay.” I went, and when I put in the first tape, which was of his last piece, I was so blown away by the work.

I thought, “How is it possible that I missed this?” His main muse, Yoko Ashikawa, came to perform in Paris, but in the West, we only saw the second generation, really. We saw people like Sankai Juku, Dairakudakan, Min Tanaka. We saw people who worked with him, but Hijikata never actually left Japan.
This became a historical context for me to go into my imagination with, and then Ana Janevski at MoMA heard about that, and MoMA commissioned Used, Abused, and Hung Out to Dry, and this idea evolved to form a residency around this research.

As you know there’s this intense dialogue about dance and the visual arts. This residency is an opportunity for me to rethink dance within a different regime. They didn’t say I had to perform, but that was the first thing I wanted to do. It was really important to me, also, that there be openness to it. That I get to discover things in it, and things can change. I want to have an opportunity to learn from what happens.

There’s a process that I use in the studio to generate material with the performers, and it’s something that I’ve never shown in public. The Practice is what we’re calling it, and it’s just an early part of the residency. It’s not a show. It’s not a performance, necessarily. I wouldn’t even call it an experiment. It’s really an open studio. People will get to see us work, and I don’t know what will happen. I’m trying to stay very sincere with that, with myself, and trying not to get all jacked up about it. It’s a way of being in the work, really, without having to make something.

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