Back in the 90s, Trajal Harrell was a little-known performer hoping to make a name for himself in the stuffy and competitive world of dance. Following many unsuccessful attempts, where he bemoaned his inability to be understood and appreciated in a dance landscape dominated by Trisha Brown and Cunningham fanatics, he decided to strip things back when he was asked to perform at NYC’s Judson Church. Obsessed with minimalism and voguing, he realised he had nothing to lose but to unite the two as a “fuck you piece” that would go on to establish him as one of the most promising choreographers of the time.
Following that performance, he’s had a trajectory of well-received choreographic creations; his evolution of the voguing dance style saw him taking inspiration from models on Saint Laurent’s runway in the 1970s, using ‘fashion’ movements and incorporating them into pieces that blurred the lines between dance and performance art.
On the back of a two year residency at New York’s MoMa, he’s hopped across the Atlantic to take up shop at London’s Barbican Centre for Hoochie Koochie, an elaborative performance which showcases some of the work most acclaimed over the course of his long career. In a rare moment of downtime before rehearsals, we grabbed some time with Harrell to learn more about his uniting of fashion and dance.
Do you want to start by telling us the moment you realised you had a passion for dance?
I don’t know if it was one moment, I think it was a collection, [an] accumulation you know. When I was a little boy I did gymnastics and I would tell my grandfather that my gymnastic class was over at four, [when] it was over at three because from three to four I wanted to watch the girls’ ballet class. There was a little door and I would sit in the door and watch it and this must have been the beginning of some passion for dance. I was really mesmerised by the ritual of ballet, the little things they do and the costuming, the leotards and tights. It wasn’t that I wanted to do it but I really loved the kind of formality of it all. [Also] I also had a dance class twice a week. We were in a drama conservatory and we were studying to be actors and directors and I was making kind of music videos – abstract, weird, strange kind of dance, I call it dance theatre poetry – and I remember showing it to my dance teacher and asking her if it was dance or performance art and she said “I think it’s performance art” and I said “well, I think I want it to be dance” and she said “I think you should study dance” and I quit the conservatory the next day.
Hoochie Koochie‘s been described in so many different ways already: an exhibition, a dance piece, performance art. What is performance art to you?
I’ve always been making work in galleries since the beginning because I didn’t have access to theatre and some of the people in the visual art world were offering me opportunities. I think that performance art is generally performance work which has been shown in a visual art setting. In this piece Caen Amour, it’s divided into a front and a back and at a certain point the audience is allowed to go to the back and in the front it operates as dance performance and in the back it operates more as a kind of gallery backstage, [a] visual art performance.
What would you say are the key themes in the hoochie koochie shows, and why you’ve choose to explore them?
When dancers who were emblematic of Middle Eastern and Asian forms, some of them were in the United States and in Europe, people would call this hoochie koochie dancing. I think the purpose of those hoochie koochie shows was to make something very exotic. I don’t think that they, the people who were constructing them, were realising that this kind of exoticism was really problematic. It was a kind of colonial gaze, we could say, but I also think what’s interesting to me, is that the same things were happening in the burgeoning form of modern dance at the turn of the century at the same time. So, to me, what’s interesting is that some of these women who were performing in these hoochie koochie shows were probably artists themselves, meaning they may have been choreographers, they may have been dancers, working also in artistic dancing and so I think that this whole period is very connected to the period of modern dance, as we know that early modern dance was also extremely defined by a lot of exoticisation and a lot of this colonial gaze and orientalism so it seems to me to be quite similar.
I work in imagination so I’m not trying to render a perfect hoochie koochie show but I’m trying to think about how these things get constructed in our imagination, so some people might confuse the fact that yes, we leave the sexism in place, yes we leave the racism in place, yes we leave the colonial gaze in place, because I want people to see how those things get constructed in our imaginations today. The whole point of the hoochie koochie show was to see female genitalia – was to see a vagina – and so this is very important to me that in this show, you see a female vagina because I want you to think about the steps that you took to get there. I know my father went to these hoochie koochie shows but we never talked about it and I never asked him about it, and those were always the kind of places that I’m interested in making art from, those kind of impossible questions and places that you have to imagine.
How did that initial interest in the runway and the catwalk become part of your work?
There’s a piece that I made in 1999, it was the first kind of runway piece that I made as a solo, three minutes long to Yazoo’s song “Ode to Boy” and this came about because I was working in a very minimalist, kind of postmodern, cliché way, and I was trying to find what to do next. A friend invited me to my first voguing ball and I was just floored by it. I was just like wow, this is so much more postmodern than what I’m seeing in the theatre and the same thing happened with a friend inviting me to my first live fashion show. This is 99/98, before Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model, before [the] internet, so going to see a fashion show was a big deal and I was just floored by the pedestrian movement but on top of the pedestrian movement was this kind of layering of identities and fractured identities and music and sound and class and gender and sexuality and I was just like here is postmodern dance.
Tell us about your first runway inspired performance.
I was going to the studio and, oddly enough, I had a performance at Judson Church. I didn’t know very many people and at the time I felt like no one kind of understood what I was doing, and I didn’t understand because I had gotten to New York and I thought everyone would be doing postmodern dance; sitting, standing, running, walking. Instead they were doing like, late Trisha Brown and Cunningham, which is very technical and very dance-y dance, you could say, and almost ballet. I was working in minimalism – what if I put vogueing through the filter of minimalism? I just made this thing of walking, standing, posing, gazing, that was it, to this little song and I thought oh my god this is hilarious but no one is going to get this, you know this is going to be the ultimate fuck you piece to all these people doing Trisha Brown and Cunningham. So I go that night [and] do the little piece and everyone starts screaming, clapping, and I think, I keep saying this because it’s really true, I think I will never hear another applause like that again.
I knew at that moment that I hit something very special and that’s when I started to look at this idea that vogueing had appropriated fashion language and this was some sort of pedestrianism that I could connect to; early postmodern dance and then this idea of runway movement. When I started to do this as a practice, I enjoyed it, like out of all the things in voguing, I mean there are many different categories, but you know, I always say I’m a runway bitch.
Do you still have an interest in going to shows today or do you have more of a nostalgic approach, looking back on the 90s fashion shows for example?
I don’t go as much as I used to, although I just went to Comme des Garcons not too long ago, like a month ago, in Paris. It’s the first time I went to a Comme des Garcons show. I have to say I’m much more interested in the history because I think that in the late 90s, 2000s, there were a lot of interesting movers on the runway. Now, I’m looking at Butoh. I’m looking at different aspects of fashion and spectacle as they relate to other forms and Butoh is a very interesting dance form. I got into Butoh because I was looking at the early shows when Comme des Garcons came to Paris in 1981. The way they spoke about the shows as post-Hiroshima aesthetic, kind of monastic, very dark, violent aesthetic was very similar to the way they spoke about Butoh critics.
Why do you think, in a world dominated by digital and social media, people are still so passionate about dance?
There’s something in our most basic DNA and which we have some facility for, moving in time and space to rhythm. Some people relate to the virtuosity aspects of it, some people relate to their ideas of beauty, their ideas of athleticism, their ideas of conceptualism, whatever it is but I still think that it gets into something that’s very age old in our culture that has to do what the body and time and rhythm and whether or not what we see still upholds that kind of, you know, very basic understanding of dance. I think there is something in all of us which we know, like one time someone told us “dance” as a little kid and we still have that inside of us and so, it’s very powerful in that way and its trope is very powerful.
Trajal Harrell: Hoochie Koochie will be at the Barbican until August 13; head here for tickets.