History in the Making

Trajal Harrell, The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai, 2015. Performance view, Zellerbach Playhouse. Thibault Lac and Stephen Thompson. Photo: Orpheas Emirzas.

AS WITH HIS PREVIOUS SERIES, Twenty Looks or Paris Is Burning at the Judson Church, 2009–2013, Trajal Harrell’s new production, The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai, is explicitly concerned with speculative history. But this time around, instead of imagining a meeting between the Harlem voguing and Judson Dance Theater worlds, Harrell turns abroad, to a choreographic encounter between two enigmatic figures: Tatsumi Hijikata, a founder of Japanese butoh dance, and Dominique Bagouet, of France’s Nouvelle Danse movement.

He also dreams up a midwife: Ellen Stewart, the inimitable force behind the East Village theater La MaMa. In a show with numerous false starts and identities, it’s tempting to think of Stewart as a Harrell avatar: a black New York performance celebrity engendering unwieldy and ambitious artistic collisions.

Stewart was an American figure, and despite its international cast, The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai, which I caught last weekend at Cal Performances in Berkeley, feels deeply American in its freewheeling repositioning of foreign pasts and grief-stricken grappling with an overwhelming present. Or maybe that’s an overreach (typically American). Maybe I should just say that, through all the brashly whirring motors of this ninety-minute machine, the set of intractable realities Harrell is rubbing up against seems familiar. Familial.

The work unfurls across slick feints at contemporary culture—most centrally, the runway, which has long been a fixture in Harrell’s work. We first see Harrell when he rises from a seat in the front row, announcing himself as Anna Wintour and loftily demanding more support for the arts. Shortly after, Thibault Lac, a willowy French dancer who surely must have been a fashion model in another life and who has a rich collaborative history with Harrell, appears on stage as Harrell for a gratingly chatty interview with fellow dancer Perle Palombe, who has established herself as our host.

These casually applied personas don’t have to do with character development or narrative. They feel much like the gorgeously ad hoc outfits the performers cycle in and out of during the fashion show that blooms lusciously in The Ghost’s middle, in stark juxtaposition to the often intensely alienating interactions among the cast, and, in a brisk raffle of stage detritus orchestrated by the dancer Stephen Thompson, the cast and audience.

Trajal Harrell, The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai, 2015. Performance view. Stephen Thompson and Christina Vasileiou. Photo: Orpheas Emirzas.

The disposability of such stagey actions—their wink-wink knowingness and promise of brevity—lies in telling contrast to the overarching demands on audience attention that this intermissionless work makes. You can’t sink into any of this, Harrell seems to be saying, and you don’t have to—but you also can’t escape. And maybe, at a certain point, you won’t want to.

All of these exchanges gesture to a cult of celebrity often deployed on contemporary stages, in which the marginal and the throwaway are held up at the center of the spectacle. They are also theater executed as tasks. Watching this work in Berkeley, I couldn’t avoid Parades & Changes (1965), the germinal Anna Halprin dance that remains resonant in its task-based, modular scoring system and its (once scandalous) use of nudity as a matter of fact. I first saw it in 2009 as parades & changes, reenactment, a French version led by the choreographer Anne Collod that itself featured an international cast reaching toward a past that was both theirs and not theirs. And of course when I looked up the piece I’d written about this project back then, what should I find but a quote from Harrell:

“ ‘This historical material becomes a repertoire that everyone is pulling from,’ [Harrell said], especially as it has grown common for choreographers to country-hop for various projects, instead of spending their careers with one company.”

This, and the notion of the post–Culture Wars artist unmoored from place, recalls “The Bohemian Diaspora,” Cynthia Carr’s 1992 essay in the Village Voice, which ends with the following lines: “Of course, bohemia was always part of the exile tradition, the place where the lost ones went to find each other. But it was exile from one tangible place to another. Now that there is no place, the exiles have become nomads, and there’s a whole culture of the disappeared.”

Carr was writing within the storm of the Culture Wars and the AIDS crisis, in a year in which HIV infection became the leading cause of death for men in the US between the ages of twenty-five and forty-four. (Bagouet was forty-one when he died in 1992). The context is different now, but it’s still indelibly marked by the events Carr so finely and painfully chronicled. (I can’t help but think of another French choreographer, Alain Buffard, who was in parades & changes, reenactment; he died in 2013 at the age of fifty-three, and was also HIV-positive.)

Which isn’t to say that The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai is about any of these things. It certainly isn’t about Bagouet or Hijikata. “Ghost” might be the most salient word in the title: Everything is at these performers’ fingertips, but there is nothing for them, or us, to grab hold of. If nothing can exist as itself, everything can become something else—it’s up to us whether we see in this a heaven or a hell.

The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai had its US premiere March 11–13 at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and played March 18 and 19 at Cal Performances at the University of California, Berkeley.