Photo by Diana Pfammatter
Deathbed by Trajal Harrell, Schauspielhaus Zürich/Kunsthalle Zürich, photo by Orpheas Emirzas
Deathbed by Trajal Harrell, Schauspielhaus Zürich/Kunsthalle Zürich, photo by Orpheas Emirzas
Monkey off My Back or the Cat’s Meow by Trajel Harrell, Schauspielhaus Zürich, photo by Orpheas Emirzas
The Köln Concert by Trajal Harrell, Schauspielhaus Zürich, photo by Reto Schmid

Trajal Harrell: Imaginative Proposition

July 31, 2022
Text by Paula Thomaka

Some secrets can’t be dismantled, but Trajal Harrell found another way to imagine history besides the common narratives within his dance language between voguing, Butoh and glamorous fashion shows.

Photo by Diana Pfammatter

American choreographer and in-house director of the Schauspielhaus Zürich Trajal Harrell negotiates the question of »what if…?«. Harrell uses this motif by sensitively approaching historical as well as traditional narratives and adding speculative elements to his dances. Thereby, he creates an artistic space and a moment of togetherness to tell different stories. While speculating about Katherine Dunham, he talks to Paula Thomaka about ritual elements in his personal and professional life and how they shape intimacy.

Deathbed by Trajal Harrell, Schauspielhaus Zürich/Kunsthalle Zürich, photo by Orpheas Emirzas

Having seen a couple of your pieces lately, I’m curious to ask if you have a daily ritual.

I tried to meditate, but it didn’t work for me on a daily basis. But I call my mother every day and try to see each day as unique as it has its own quality. And in a way, being in touch with my family really grounds me because I have been far away from them for so long. So, I try to stay in touch with them, which is my most ritualistic thing.

So, in which way are rituals connected to your choreographic practice?

My work has been related to Butoh, as well as »Deathbed«, related to looking at Katherine Dunham and her relationship to Butoh. But those things are more interconnected to aspects of the work than my personal life. For example, »Deathbed« is a ritual – it’s not an actual ritual but a performance of a kind of ritual. You feel the ritualistic properties of the performance but without a clear beginning or start. Certain things happen, and you get to a specific place in the piece; you realize that this place was inevitable, where you get to come out of a particular series of events and ceremonies that had to take place. So, that’s what I call a ritual, and I am trying to formally show these aspects in its performativity.

Also, I am trying to address Katherine Dunham into Butoh. She was trying to explain a lot about African American performativity. Of course, Butoh is utterly related to the dead living through the body, dancing through the body. Moreover, Tatsumi Hijikata went back to looking at all the shamanistic practices in Japanese folk theater. So, I am aesthetically listening to both and transferring them into my imaginative practice. Therefore, from an imaginative point of view, I ask how to make a piece aesthetically and how it can shape itself.

Deathbed by Trajal Harrell, Schauspielhaus Zürich/Kunsthalle Zürich, photo by Orpheas Emirzas

Speaking of aesthetics and shapes. Another essential reference system of yours are fashion shows and catwalks.

A fashion show by itself can be seen as a ritual if you break it down in its components, but not only how it functions in the fashion industry. For example, in »Monkey Off My Back or the Cat’s Meow,« the first thing we do is take the plastic off the stage; this is something you see in fashion shows all the time. There is a particular way of repetition in fashion shows. You see models come and go the whole time. So, it’s something that I use ceremonially within the performance that may not be an actual ritual. But I try to use it ritualistically to call us into the eventness of this performance. It’s how you enrich performance conditions so people can be together at the exact moment. Still, it is a thin line between ritual and theater if we are talking about that. It is a way to connect when trying to get other people to click. Because a ritual is not necessarily defined in each situation, it’s how you get people to honor certain subjectivities they may not even be aware of. And this aspect of using that structure to tell a different story is what I do. This procedure is something that I’ve been working with and breaking down in my pieces to define the way of performance I’ve been doing.

Monkey off My Back or the Cat’s Meow by Trajel Harrell, Schauspielhaus Zürich, photo by Orpheas Emirzas

You already worked with many museums and did a two-year Annenberg Artist’s Commission Research Residency at The Museum of Modern Art. Now, »Deathbed,« your latest piece in Zurich, was shown at Kunsthalle Zurich. What was the starting point of your cooperation?

I never have a specific format; instead, I focus on my work’s sculptural and installational aspects. »Deathbed« was supposed to be my first new production in Zurich. It is part of the performance trilogy »Porca Miseria«, portraying three female characters and their social environments. We immediately knew the dance shouldn’t take place in a theater when it’s not shown in the trinity. So, Benjamin von Blomberg, co-artistic director of the Schauspielhaus Zurich, came up with Kunsthalle Zurich as part of a list of possible locations and Daniel Baumann, director of the Kunsthalle, was very enthusiastic about this project. As you mentioned I already worked a lot in museums, so I wanted to start up that way in Zurich to make a statement about not being in a theater but in a gallery. Also, Daniel stood by the project, which was really difficult – the show was supposed to premiere in 2020 in March, but COVID hit, and we rescheduled the project three times. I ended up starting in the second venue of Schauspielhaus, Pfauen, with the »The Köln Concert.«

The piece «The Köln Concert» is also part of this year’s program at the ImPulsTanz Festival in Vienna. What is your connection to Keith Jarrett’s «Köln Concert»?

The «Köln Concert» is one of my favorite pieces of music. It gave me chills when I first heard it, maybe around 1997 or 98 or 99. I didn’t know music like that existed. It was so arresting and triumphant, yet edged in and out with a sorrowful tone. So, I knew one day I wanted to choreograph to it, but I knew I had to have a lot more in my toolbox. When I had the chance to make a piece with social distancing in 2020, I first thought of using the piano benches we often use as a base for the dancers. Then I thought of piano music, and finally, I was reminded of Jarrett’s «Köln Concert». I was scared, but I tried.

Also, you mentioned archiving elements of Katherine Dunham in your artistic practice, but in which way do you archive a play within our piece?

There are different procedures for all aspects of archiving – it’s about remembering, storing, failing, classifying, and unfolding. I see it as a metaphorical way to remember other pieces within my body. So, I have to show you that archive within my body in an imaginative proposition. Therefore, I use elements as imaginative conditions to which I can then unfold the choreography. They just become principles to which I choreograph.

The Köln Concert by Trajal Harrell, Schauspielhaus Zürich, photo by Reto Schmid

We can see it more like speculations, which are essential methods of your practice – what is the potential of these unpredicted currents, pasts, and futures?

I think it’s about the impossible. Once, I heard the Cuban artist Tania Bruguera say her work is all about the unthinkable, trying to make people feel the need for the impossible. That’s like speculations, too. You can see it as an artistic maneuver that artists transfer into society to see something that you believe may be impossible in these speculations but that can come true. Speculations get inside the nervous system and the brains, giving people hope and the possibility to open up. For me, it is a deep level where the art is functioning.

In the dance »Deathbed«, you reflect on the meeting with African American anthropologist, choreographer, and activist Katherine Dunham and regretting not asking the right questions. You also speculate within your work if Dunham and Tatsumi Hijikata meet. Which impact would a public meeting have had on Dunham’s reception and Butoh?

I think they did meet. But if they had met in public, the history of Butoh and how we look at it would be different. We know about the shamanistic practice of Hijikata going to the north of Japan, but he never mentioned Katherine Dunham. If we had known that Haitian Vodun and Butoh were connected – also the way we would have thought Butoh would be different. People have already started to write about and investigate the impact of Afro-diasporic cultures on Butoh. But obviously, there are historical representation issues like whether this African American woman was not appropriately credited regarding her influence on Butoh. We also know this question is historically repeated where African American women or women of marginalized communities or cultures are often edited out of the story.

The first time I saw Butoh, I saw the documentary »Dance and Darkness«. Even when I went to school, I didn’t know how to place Butoh. Now, it makes more sense because I know there could be a connection with Haitian Vodun. I can see that Butoh looks somewhat like a Haitian Vodun ritual – something uncanny. We will never know the answer to that question because both are dead and took their secrets with them, which is beautiful, too. But we also know that Katherine Dunham herself didn’t talk about that – so it’s complicated and complex. Still, at the same time, we see a repetition of dominant cultural history and how it begins to define itself. It tells us this male western European story – we know. But what we are left with, now that we know: we understand the power dynamics and hierarchies. We are left with something that has the power of imagination and should never be underestimated. There is a power – at least from a postcolonial feminist perspective – in history as an imaginative process. We cannot just think that historical lineage improves in a standard academic way as the only way. And that is a lot of what my work is about – this artistic space in which we can imagine history. And I think this has its power as well.

Don’t miss Trajal Harrell / Schauspielhaus Zürich Dance Ensemble »The Köln Concert« at ImPulsTanz on August 5/7.

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PW-Magazine is a bilingual online magazine for contemporary culture run by Luca Büchler and Lewon Heublein. 

PW-Magazine is supported by the Federal Chancellery of Austria and Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia.