All That Jazz

Trajal Harrell takes up Keith Jarrett and Tennessee Williams

Trajal Harrell, The Köln Concert, Théâtre de la cité, Paris, 2022. Photo: Reto Schmid.

THE AUDIENCE SAUNTERS into the theater, immersed in distracted chatter, half-consciously awaiting the dimming of the stage lights. But they stay on longer than expected. Upstage, barefoot, hands clasped behind his back and wearing a floral dress around his neck, Trajal Harrell has been watching this routine unfold from the start. With bemusement? Apprehension? Measured curiosity? Occasionally, he bends over to warmly greet an acquaintance parked up near the stage or pulls a tissue out of his pocket to wipe his runny nose. The performance has already begun, if unremarkably. Feeling the room, sizing it up . . . It begins with a vibe check.

This prelude isn’t unique to The Köln Concert, performed last November and December at the Théâtre de la Cité internationale in Paris as part of the Festival d’Automne, nor to Maggie the Cat, presented in October at NYU’s Skirball Center—both of which have been touring internationally since at least 2019. Indeed, many of the choreographer’s signature moves are at play in the pair of dance works discussed here, not least of which is his proclivity for reprises of the past. For over a decade, Harrell has fabulated counterfactual histories—Harlem voguing strolls downtown to Judson, for instance—and hybridized styles, assembling sources from Butoh to ancient Greek theater. In Paris, spectators eager for a Harrell take on Keith Jarrett’s eponymous 1975 performance at the Cologne Opera House were served an unexpected dose of folk as an appetizer. Cue sound: Instead of the pianist’s famed improvisation, it was the unmistakable chanting of Joni Mitchell that spread with oceanic force across the theater. A few die-hard Parisian jazz aficionados were flustered. You had to read the fine print.

In a decade-old New Yorker essay, Zadie Smith recounts her unlikely “conversion” to Mitchell’s music, describing a sudden “attunement” after years of harboring what she characterized as a philistine aversion to the singer’s unpredictable vocal harmonies and jangly melodies. Struck instantly, but only later in life, by the “almost intolerable beauty” of the 1971 album Blue, Smith writes: “It’s not a very civilized emotion . . . I can never guarantee that I’m going to be able to get through the song without being made transparent—to anybody and everybody, the whole world. A mortifying sense of porousness.” Harrell doesn’t cite Smith, but announces the same sensibility in his opening solo. His simple movement vocabulary—body swaying, gaze lifted upward, arms in slow, windshield-wiping motion—dramatized by a manic tremor and breathy quivering, bears the shape of that feeling: vulnerable, defenseless. (Mitchell on the making of Blue: “At that period of my life I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes.”) Harrell siphons this emotion into a private, inner choreography and turns it inside out, making it visible for the public. His is the kind of dance-cry you might give yourself over to, alone in your room, indulging in narcissistic overidentification with songs that are confessionally precise, vocally earnest, and unapologetically autobiographical. At least, this is what Harrell seems to suggest as his solo gives way to the singular responses, first of dancer Ondrej Vidlar, and then of others who, one by one, enter in furs and velvet and taffeta and fringe. They are dancing alone, together. After all, Harrell says that this piece was configured in response to pandemic social distancing (see the seven evenly spaced piano stools that suffice as decor).

Trajal Harrell, The Köln Concert, Théâtre de la cité, Paris, 2022. Photo: Reto Schmid.

Harrell’s selection, he explains, came out of his deep attachments to both musicians, whose impactful work he metabolized privately for two decades before he could engage it publicly. He wasn’t much concerned with connoisseurship (which, Smith observes, has little bearing on what we love) nor does he fetishize the artists’ “mastery” of their craft. (See Harrell’s cheeky update of Yvonne Rainer’s “No Manifesto” [“No to spectacle. No to virtuosity . . . ”] in Twenty Looks or Paris Is Burning at The Judson Church, 2009–13.) Sure, Jarrett’s performance has entered the annals of jazz as a tour de force in improvisation, one that might not have even been. Recall the concert’s origin myth: The Bösendorfer 290 Imperial grand piano Jarrett had requested wasn’t available and the rehearsal instrument provided in its place was a poor, defective substitute; frustrated, exhausted, and pained by sleepless nights on tour, he almost called the whole thing off. That this performance came out of such less-than-ideal conditions only reinforces what, for Harrell, is so galvanizing about this music: the primacy of feeling. “I don’t know any other music where someone is so physically involved in it . . . In the recording I feel his body.” Grunts, hums, pedal pulses—listening to the Köln Concert is an exercise in attunement to liveness, to a body in sound—in fact, Jarrett encouraged any aspiring performer of the piece to use the 1977 EMC live recording for instruction, rather than the transcription he begrudgingly authorized in the ’90s. A performance without a score, the Köln Concert would traffic in many of the archival questions that continue to perplex practitioners, critics, and scholars of performance. 

Trajal Harrell, The Köln Concert,  Théâtre de la cité, Paris, 2022. Photo: Reto Schmid.

Whereas Harrell’s archival reanimations have often asserted a more pointed critique of theories of dance and liveness and representation, Köln takes a decidedly personal turn in its deployment of the catwalk as a structuring choreographic syntax. Lithe and often partially unclothed, his dancers circulate images and surface impressions with every relay down the runway and costume change, but will just as easily shed a clingy projection with a nonchalant wave of the hand, well-timed pause or pose, or haughty sidelong glance cast at no one in particular. Toggling between mimesis and expression, Harrell’s performers remain critically unstable, unessentializable, and somehow impervious to any exogenous context or commentary we may be moved to impose on them. In their embodied attunement to the soundtrack, their seemingly earnest devotion to feeling themselves in the music, they are left curiously both under- and overexposed. Halfway through the hourlong performance, the porous boundary between outward expression and inner reflection disintegrates. As the pianist’s vamping figures intensify in gyrating buildups of melismatic expansions with rhythmic acceleration and release, the dancers’ successive solos and duets evince a heightened struggle between control and letting go. Songhay Toldon staggers—freewheeling, ecstatic, intoxicated—while Maria Ferreira Silva thrusts forward in hesitant steps and nervous contortions, seemingly propelled by the force of the pianist’s jabs. Titilayo Adebayo’s every sultry hair flip effuses liberatory sensual pleasure, while Nojan Bodas Mair matches seductive excess with equal parts torment and self-doubt; Thibault Lac hovers dangerously on the edge of debilitation. It’s only in the final convocation—a courtly round of stylized bows and waves that sets into motion each time a dancer approaches upstage center to perform a final solo in the spotlight—that they each find their unique place amid the social body and, in effect, synchronize. Their final bow, taken together along the edge of the stage, concludes precisely the instant the pianist releases the keys. Puppeteer releases marionettes. The spell of “liveness” is lifted. Bodies relax. Audience exhales (had we been holding our breath?). The freedom to feel, I’m reminded, is often a matter of propitious conditions aligning.

Trajal Harrell, Maggie the Cat, NYU Skirball, New York, 2022. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

I saw The Köln Concert nearly a month after Maggie the Cat, yet it cast a considerable shadow backward to Harrell’s loose reworking of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1952)—a play that unambiguously speaks of repressed sexualities, intemperate consumption, mendacious volte-faces, and life’s shattered illusions, not to mention deep-seated divisions of class, race, and gender you might expect in 1950s Mississippi (Harrell, born in Douglas, Georgia, in 1973, also knows the South). His approach to Williams’s much reinterpreted, maligned, and censored classic—less an adaptation than an audacious reimagining—summons the troubled artifact as a hazy imaginary that dissolves Williams’s egoistic and self-interested protagonists to concentrate on the characters whose presence in the story has gone most overlooked: the so-called help. What if, Harrell asks, the Black servants, butlers, and maids of this big white Southern plantation were given center stage? No matter the actual demographic makeup of his diverse company—which includes several white dancers—the premise, if we buy into it (easily done), pays off.

To enact this revision, all binaries must be reversed or dissolved. Gender first, of course: Harrell and the ebullient Perle Palombe, masters of the House, play Big Mama and Big Daddy, respectively. As Maggie gets going, they run the show from a thin strip upstage, dispensing occasional comments and instructions that soon digress into a continuous flow of spirited interpolations and flirty catcalling. Big Daddy intones the titular epithet with monomaniacal fervor, devolving into high-pitched meowing and onanistic scatting: Maggie the Cat, the wonderful, wonderful cat. Who is she? A foil, a concept, an object of desire, a symbol of endurance? Big Mama skirts the question and puts Maggie in her place: Maggie’s serving dinner / Maggie’s serving brunch / Hit it bitch. She has to work. Naturally, housework happens on the catwalk—bodies are set in repetitive, routinized motion along a prescribed circuit, attired in household textiles drawn from an assembly station downstage that offers a continuous pageant of evermore ingenious costumes. Cushions become coronal upholstery or soft, goofy appendages; towels and sheets serve as post-shower headdresses or Grecian togas; shiny pom-poms jazz up expressive hand motions, and slinky nylons and taut straps up the ante on coquettish advances. When high fashion and everyday stuff collide, other spurious distinctions, too, start to break down: between form and function, costume and prop, labor and leisure. Reclaiming the object world of domestic servitude toward other uses, “the help” might also reclaim agency, visibility, and play—or so this workers’ detournement, at its most formulaic, would suggest.

Trajal Harrell, Maggie the Cat, NYU Skirball, New York, 2022. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

If Köln ultimately recalls that distanced collectivity we have come to know in recent years, Maggie produces a sociality of unalienated embodiment, visualizing the passage across boundaries through the spatial metaphor of the stage. One scene illustrates this transcendence best: After fleeting forays across the dividing line, Big Daddy places a tray at the threshold between the two stage areas and all ritualistically parade through it, symbolically flattening the hierarchies of power and difference that kept them apart. It’s so simple on the dance floor, especially when hypnotic electro starts thumping, and the stage becomes a club. Harrell’s reanimation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof turned the play inside out, calling up all its dirt and ambivalence and symptomatic repressions and letting it all unfurl, only to summon those who usually clean up the mess to a dance party in its wake. So of course, Maggie in New York was more festive than Köln in Paris—Palombe, who sat in the first row at the Théâtre de la cité, remarked to me after the show that performing in New York is always a little like coming home for Harrell. The choreographer, now director of the Schauspielhaus Zürich, has made a career of working black boxes and proscenium stages alike for maximum effect; in New York, the audience was ready to dance along. No surprise here, though. The theater is his House, after all.