In Conversation with Trajal Harrell

I interviewed choreographer/dancer Trajal Harrell in 2018, ahead of his Berlin premier of In the Moody for Frankie. Harrell is known for merging post-modern dance with forms of movement outside the canon, such as voguing,  butoh and runway. Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church is a prime example. 

Our conversation touched on exoticism, language and how Harrell got started in the dance field. It was fascinating to hear someone speak about their craft with such precision and nuance.  

RH: Your work has been exhibited by major institutions around the world. Do you notice any difference in its reception?


TH: I think that my work is, in many ways, very American and there is something about that in a foreign context. In the United States there is a certain ingrown familiarity with the work because somehow they [the audience] know a lot of these cultural references. In a more European context, I think there is a curiosity about the kind of slippage that I do. I play with a lot of different cultural references but they're not static. You can't place them in an easy projection. The main thing I'm trying to do is to problematise my own position in the work. I have to problematise my own position if I'm looking at Asian culture and Asian aesthetics, and so I’m questioning my own sense of exoticism and how I exoticise things and that's the kind of procedure that makes the flip for people.


RH: If you were a white body on stage it would be a completely different interaction with the history.


TH: Exactly and I think that that's very different. You can't just put a body in a racialised position if that body is saying “I also confront certain limitations of certain “isms”, that I promote or power the structures that I sign onto and support”. So this is another way to question how we make meaning around difference and produce values around discourse.


RH: And do you think that your position within a racialised society gives you more space to do that in a way that might not be the case for other artists?


TH: I have two answers for that. On one side we have to say no, because you have to make the space and everybody has to make the space. We can all say that it's difficult, of course it's difficult. You have to make the space and making the space is work. It takes time and patience. On the other hand, of course the experiences we have as people who exist within certain experiences of discrimination offers a sensitivity, but a sensitised point of view is not singular in itself. It exists only in opposition to another position in which one can be sensitised, so in this to-ing and fro-ing, it is important to remember that there's no static position.


RH: Your work draws on various historical moments and seemingly disparate ideas. What's your process of weaving them together?


TH: You know, I don't know. I think I work on many things at one time. Like a visual artist I'm always working with like five big paintings at the same time. I'm really influenced by many things and I try to let those influences co-mingle in the same space. I think Frankie was a breakthrough piece for me in a way because it was the first time I went into the studio and said “you know what, I'm just going to take these influences in the room and see what happens”. I didn't try to position them through a historical framework. There was of course a lot of research that I was working with but when I went to the studio, I said “these are my influences, let's see what happens”.


RH: Would you say that you are conscious of dance being a political tool?


TH: I studied with people like bell hooks and I was taught that the personal is political, everything is political and defined by the world of politics around it, so of course dance is not outside of that. The things my works are made of are instrumentalised through political scenarios that exist today, but I don't start from there. I try to become aware of what the work is producing as it’s being made.


Caen Amour, for example, is a piece about a Hoochie Koochie show. My father went to Hoochie Koochie shows which were renowned for naked women dancing for the gaze of men. In my Hoochie Koochie, only a female danced naked and for many this was a problematic situation. I was trying to imagine what the Hoochie Koochie show would have looked like and I was trying to problematise this gaze. The work was made so that people could in fact understand, not just the political implications of this sexism and its representation but how they participate in this projection today. So of course the key for me is not to instrumentalise a specific political position but to give people the tools to be able to better understand our own possibilities and the way things are valued.


RH: You talk about the dance field needing to cultivate a culture of critical theory and write its own history. Has there been much movement on that?


TH: I think there was some movement on that in the 90s and early 2000s but I think we lost the audience, because it became too internal of a conversation. If you weren’t reading the right books and seeing everything, how could you participate in this conversation? Traditional theatre has the text. You can read a play. Dance can have text too, but you rarely get a dance that can read as a text. So in terms of getting people to access dance and talk about dance, we’ve got a long way to go.


When I was coming up in NY, there was this attitude which was “I let the dance speak for itself. I don’t need to explain it”, but when you go to visual arts events most people are used to text. When they go to a museum, there’s a catalogue, wall texts and they’re moving through it all, getting things and moving on. When we get to the dance, half the people don’t get it. If we don’t want them to understand more then fine, but as the average person doesn’t have the time to read and talk about dance, you have to make a balance between what you want to offer, how you want people to receive it, and what tools you want to give them.


RH: What are the key differences you see in performing arts from when you started out in late 90's New York and now?


TH: When I started it was a serious conceptual moment. A lot of people were not moving. It was very pedestrian and reiterating the post modern tenents and so there wasn’t as much movement on the stage. Now a lot of people are moving again but it was really interesting to go through a phase understanding that there could be  knowledge production in dance and people could really strip it back. And now the movement has come back with a seriousness of attention and understanding that it can be meaningful. It’s not that we move just because it's pretty or we move because we have skills. No. This movement can produce meaning and values and all the things that we’ve talked about. I hope that my work has been a part of that.

RH: Could we talk about your decision to go from theatre to dance and why you changed course?


TH:I was in a theatre conservatory, and it had dance class twice a week. I was just in love with the dance class. A friend once said to me “I think you’re trying to be a choreographer” and her words just kind of sat with me. There was a moment when I showed a dance teacher something I was working on and it was really bad. I was walking around wearing one shoe making some repetitive statements.


RH: Wait - walking around with one shoe, talking?


TH: Yeah, just talking. And I’m sure I was in underwear and a t-shirt. It was bad. So I show it to the dance teacher and I ask her: “Do you think it’s performance art or do you think it’s dance?” And at that point it was a very important distinction for me. She said in the snootiest voice “I think it’s performance art” and the way she said it! I said “I think I want it to be dance” and she said “I think you need to study dance”. So I got up and I thought about it and I quit the conservatory. It was that simple. It just hit me. I was so naive. I had no idea what that meant. I didn’t know what a choreographer did, knew nothing about the industry but I was in love at that point with moving and I thought I had found my passion. In a way I say to myself, that I’m still doing the same thing. I didn’t know then and I don’t know now. The only difference now is I can pay the rent.

Keep up to date with Trajal Harrell here