Choreographer Trajal Harrell talks to Astrid Kaminski about his conceptual runway dances and historical reimaginings just before the German premiere of his performance In the Mood for Frankie.
The choreographer Trajal Harrell is best known for his conceptual runway dances and historical reimaginings. For example, in the series “Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church”, he brought together postmodern dancers from SoHo with vogueing dancers from the black and Latino ballroom scene in Harlem. After a long period working with this kind of imagined encounter, he began to engage in the late expressionist dance Butoh from Japan, arriving at the question: Was Butoh, in all its darkness, a source of inspiration for the groundbreaking early shows of the fashion label Comme des Garçons? His current show, In the Mood for Frankie brings these two concepts together. The performance, which takes place under dimmed lights on sculptural runways made of white and black marble, will be performed at Berlin’s HAU this week, and Volksbühne Berlin is planning to show Harrell’s adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof during the 2018/19 season.
For this interview, we met in Athens where Harrell moved some years ago.
When I asked a friend about her highlights of documenta 14 in Athens, one of them was “Trajal Harrell waving for a taxi around midnight”. Now, when I think about you, always this image comes up.
That is funny. How does she know it was me?
Why shouldn’t she know it was you?
Oh my God. You know, so much of my formative time I spent in New York. And in New York I spend money on cabs. Yes, I am a taxi person. And I can give you some advice: Always keep your receipt.
If you are a person like me… I always try not to leave things. But. When I was in San Francisco, I had a very new video camera. It was in the beginning of my career. I left it in the cab – I was so destroyed. But in fact, I got it back! I kept the receipt, so I phoned and got connected with the driver.
You moved to Athens some years ago but at the same time, most of the Greek artists fled the crisis. So you are surrounded by refugees and retired people rather than, for example, a queer or black art scene. What does this mean to you?
You know, my company is based in Brussels and New York and I still live with my mother in Georgia. But I also need a place in Europe and since I am from the south, I need the sun. Here, in Athens, it feels more like a sanctuary, a shelter, a retreat. I live here in a bubble. I do my laundry, I do my dry cleaning. I look at the tree outside of my window. I need this solitude. In another time of my life I’m sure this will change, I will get out and engage in understanding the fabric of the city.
When I think about the taxi scene, I see you with a flattering coat. This of course comes from your use of floating textiles. Are ancient Greek and Roman dresses inspiring you?
There is a particular dress that plays a role in several pieces. In Made to Measure from the “Twenty Looks” series, Caen Amour, and Odori, the Shit!. It is made by complexgeometries, and you can wear it different ways. It has something of the diaphanous in my work, like an ode from antiquity to early modern dance. In Juliet and Romeo, which is only played by men, we use a lot of dresses like that. We often only hold them up in front of us. The use of the pedestrian look that came through postmodern dance, for example, is all about being in the here and now: here we are, in these bodies. I come from here. But through holding the dresses in front of me, I go a step further. They create a space to incite the imagination to historical possibilities. They are like dreams. Of course this comes from vogueing, the dream to change who you are into who you could be. I formalize this into a practise of re-imagination.
"If you would categorize me in Voguing, I am a butch femme, because I walk a woman but I still dress like a man"
Most of your pieces are runway shows.
All are runway shows. There is a connection between dance, ballet, and fashion. Both the ballet and the fashion spectacle started in the court of Louis XIV. And even today, when the Paris Opéra starts the season, they do a défilé [parade of the ballet corps]. So this history is intertwined. And from there it is very interesting to look at how the shared practices developed, how they now differ, how they produce different meanings in terms of social, economic, political implications, and then to rethink them by bringing them together again.
You’ve played characters such as Antigone, Juliet’s Nurse, and La Argentina. How do you see yourself: playing with femme aspects like in vogueing, or as a feminist?
I’m happy to be included in all of that. For sure, my theoretical knowledge comes from postcolonial feminist theory. If you would categorize me in Voguing, I am a butch femme, because I walk a woman but I still dress like a man. A femme realness would be somebody who dressess as a woman and who could pass as a woman in real life. Performatively, this also connects me to ancient history in which the roles of the women were played by men. Try to imagine that many of them were feminists, too! As artists they might have understood that they live in an unjust society where people don’t have equal rights. Imagine, a play with a princess that stands up against the king!
How could some of these men who played Antigone not have been feminists?
Today, it would be problematic if you somebody from an underrepresented group on stage wasn’t played by someone from that group.
Sure. But we are not just speaking about representation on the stage here. Women did not have citizenship nor the right to perform in the theater – this is the difference! And the actors were neither judges nor politicians, they were artists. So which kind of discussions can you have within a system with political limitations in order to move it? At different points of history, we have to use different strategies, that’s what I’m interested in reflecting.
We live in a difficult time for representation.
I think my art can’t be effective if it is too politically expedient in terms of an ideology. At least, I don’t want to be explicit – but that’s just my way. I won’t tell anybody you cannot “Vogue Astrid!", as if you were a category at a ball.
Maybe they wouldn’t vogue you because Astrid is white. What I want is to ask questions, and open opportunities in which these questions can evolve. It is more complicated than whether Astrid is good or bad.
Why was the only real striptease in Caen Amour done by a cis woman?
Of course! It is a hoochie coochie show. This is how the piece works: I explicitly handed out a paper explaining that we leave the racism, sexism, and colonialism in place. The hoochie coochie was not a show where people were going to look at penises; they were going to look at vaginas. It would be a very second wave feminist idea to say: “There’s a naked woman, let’s have a naked man, too.” That’s not the same thing. The construction of the gaze and its historical and social connotations are not the same. In addition to this, I also try to show you what is in my own imagination – I’m problematizing myself.
When I was a little boy in Georgia, the fair would come every year again, and they had a hoochie coochie show. I was with my father, and at a certain point he would leave me with my friends and I saw that he was going there. I saw a sign depicting a lady with her hair and a dot for her breasts like my mother. When I got older I finally understood that he was going to watch women dance naked. I never discussed that with anyone, but this was my first understanding of dance as a spectacle. That is what is behind Caen Amour, of course with several layers on top of it. I mention this to make clear what is the difference between a reconstruction, or re-enactment and a re-imagination in the sense that I do it.
"When I first travelled to Japan, I started the game of 'six-degrees-of-separation', in which I was trying to meet people and see if they could introduce me to Rei Kawakubo"
Your actual piece In the Mood for Frankie is billed as a work on muses. Amongst others you refer to Hijikata, the inaugurator of Butoh – the so-called dance of darkness – and the fashion designer Rei Kawakubo and her label Comme des Garçons. Which period of her work speaks most to you, the early punk aesthetic or the later “objects for the body” period?
My question was different. As you know a big part of my work is a research on Butoh dance. And my question when I first travelled to Japan was: “Is Comme des Garçons influenced by Butoh?” What struck me is the way people talked about those first shows of Comme des Garçons – the post-Hiroshima aesthetic, the darkness: very similar to the way they try to describe Butoh, A very western exoticized perspective.
It’s hard to say. When I first travelled to Japan, I started the game of “six-degrees-of-separation”, in which I was trying to meet people and see if they could introduce me to Rei Kawakubo. But the idea was not so much to meet her, but to have this discussion with them. It’s more interesting to play with the question than to know the answer. Of course what she did later on, the “lumps and bumps” body-pads-aesthetics that she created in the time of her collaboration with [modern choreographer] Merce Cunningham, was very different. What really fascinates me is that Kawakubo is very clear that she is someone working in the commercial industry and that she has to sell clothes. And that she, in this context, makes people buy into her philosophy, that produces a lot of meaning in terms of gender, sociology, and even politics.
Which attracted your interest first: Rei Kawakubo or Butoh?
When I finished the “Twenty Looks” series, I wanted to change my work. I thought: “OK, when I change my work, I should maybe change my relation to the fashion spectacle.” So I asked myself what was changing fashion and I came to Comme des Garçons. This made me ask the question about Butoh and it was only when I went to research this in Japan, that I came upon the archives of Hijikata Tatsumi. And then I lost my mind, I was just gaga. His work did not come to the West, he never left Japan – all we knew was from the work of other people who worked with him as well as books and a few films.
Speaking about muses: In The Mood For Frankie reminds us of Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love. But who is Frankie? Another muse?
A bit. A word that I like. Frank is a word that my friends would use when they ask: “Is she black or white? Is she this or that?” And, not knowing the answer, they would say: “She is frank.”
In the Mood for Frankie
German Premiere: 28 March 2018
HAU Hebbel am Ufer
ASTRID KAMINSKI is a critic and writer based in Berlin.