ARTICLE ADAM WHITNEY NICHOLS
PHOTOGRAPHY BENGT GUSTAFSSON
TRAJAL HARRELL IS A DIVISIVE DARLING ON THE INTERNATIONAL DANCE CIRCUIT, WHO, FOR THE PAST FEW YEARS HAS PRESENTED TWENTY LOOKS OR PARIS IS BURNING AT THE JUDSON CHURCH. HIS MOST RECENT INSTALLMENT, USED, ABUSED AND HUNG OUT TO DRY IS LARGELY INSPIRED BY THE LATE CHOREOGRAPHER TATSUMI HIJIKATA'S DEVELOPMENT OF A DANCE FORM CALLED "BUTOH." LOST IN THE LAYERS? THAT'S ALL PART OF THE PROGRAM FOR THIS VOGUEING ENTHUSIAST
As I await for Trajal Harrell in the lobby of New York Live Arts, I recall his presentation of Antigone Sr. at the American Realness festival a week prior. At just under three hours, Antigone Sr. requires an uncommon endurance among New Yorkers. Two hours in, my neighbors began to chat, stretch, and check their phones; and at hour three, a man sitting a row ahead exclaimed “I am just going to die.” He then took out a zip-lock bag, rolled a joint and left. At curtain call, half of the audience was thrilled; the others, apparently miserable. This is Harrell’s standard reception.
Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church, a seven-part performance based on counterfactual history: What if the Harlem vogueing scene went downtown to dance with the postmodernists at Judson Church? The concept has yet another layer, since Harrell frames his theory in Ancient Greek Tragedy, specifically Sophocles’ Antigone.
Twenty Looks has made Harrell successful—his calendar is largely planned to 2015—but among peers, critics and curators, there is no collective praise. Opinions of his work are split between soaring praise and searing disdain. For an artist often on the defensive, his first presentation at MOMA this week is a triumph over naysayers.
Harrell arrives at the very second we are scheduled to meet. He is in his uniform—a combination of grays, and a leather bag that hangs from his elbow. With kisses on both cheeks, he says, “It is so nice to see you again.” I explain we have never met, but like a politician never off-guard, he smiles and replies, “Haven’t we?” Among artists, there are many introverts, but among successful artists, there are many more charmers. Harrell often appears anxious, but he is unquestionably among the latter.
When I raise the issue of length in Antigone Sr., Harrell asks if I came the first night, which I did, and concedes “I did cut the end by 6 minutes, because I felt like it was repeating itself.” I suggest the work is still lengthy, but he counters, “I am not someone who works on duration. I have certain things that need to be fulfilled performatively." If duration is not a focus, it’s a by-product of Harrell’s larger conceits, one of which is to subvert expectations of a final, perfect product.
If Twenty Looks appeared polished, it would be unfaithful to Harlem and Judson Church, two famously experimental scenes. The irony Harrell confronts is that what was experimentation then is now old hat, so he instead relies on the relaxed, uncertain atmosphere of those places. Dancers are often in their sweats as people enter. They chat with the audience, many of whom are peers. Harrell gives disclaimers: “the costumes are not right,” for example, or “the music cues are off,” or, even further, “the lighting designer did not show up.” These statements are untrue, but the audience is now ready for something not quite ripe.
“Antigone Sr. operates as a mess, but, of course, it is a precise mess. This is a fiction.” Harrell says, “I want people to feel that I am making this with my hands. That I am making this in the here and now. It is not from a prefabricated box, and just pops on stage.” Harrell’s “fiction” is hypnotic. By the time dancers hit the stage in Antigone Sr. and exhibit their phenomenal virtuosity, the lights already manage to unhinge the perception of space—the music too unexpectedly takes hold—and suddenly I felt lucky to stumble upon an improvised, nascent, and brilliant work. But it is neither improvised nor nascent; Antigone Sr. is rigorously choreographed. Harrell’s fiction is successful: it transports.
“How fast can we get to the essence of tragedy?” Harrell asks. His question and objective is also an anxiety. Harrell, after all, has been defending his complex thesis since 2009. “Antigone as a character only exists because she is played by a man… This presents a very particular kind of performativity that’s very interesting in relation to vogueing. I don't think that ancient theater was so different from vogueing.” Harrell is keen to create unlikely metaphors on stage and defend previously outsider movement, like vogueing, and its inspiration: runway movement.
Fashion is paramount for Harrell. It is particularly appropriate that his MOMA show occurs during New York Fashion Week. "We tried to treat runway movement as if it was ballet,” Harrell says. His sets always include a runway—this has become his signature—and his costumes are fantastical collages of fashion trends. Harrell only casts male dancers in his work, so his use of women’s fashion is particularly pointed and ties yet again to Ancient Greek theater. The more obvious fashion sections in his work can also be the most enjoyable. In Antigone Sr., Harrell takes the microphone and narrates catwalks on stage, alluding to emcees in the Harlem vogueing scene, at one point exclaiming “This is from the house of Jil Sander. Jil Sander is in the house. Welcome back, Jil.” The audience roared with laughter.
At times, Harrell’s ideas are overwrought and burden the performance, but when he transcends his theory, the work is awe-inspiring. “The real issue is impossibilities.” Harrell says, “How do we rethink the impossibilities in the world? The job of the artist is to go in and give the wherewithal to believe in the impossible. I create these impossible fictions."
Amidst praise and criticism, Harrell’s impossible fictions relentlessly hammer at something new. He does not simply reference history in the hope of creating an intellectual work; Harrell makes unlikely relationships to create a new breed of dancer, art, and audience. “We have to believe in something together and enact an impossibility…” Harrell says. When so much art seems simply retailored, the creation of an impossibility—something we never fathomed—is more than welcome.
Used, Abused, and Hung Out to Dry shows at MoMA on February 13-14