Talk Dance is a podcast series devoted to in-depth conversations with dance artists produced and hosted by local dancer, educator, and commentator Justin Jones. In this installment, Jones speaks with Trajal Harrell, whose work The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai will be performed in the Walker’s McGuire Theater March 11-13, 2016. You can listen to the full podcast on the Walker Channel.
Justin Jones: “Where do you call home?”
Trajal Harrell: “… Home for me is in many places I guess would say. I certainly call home where my mother is, my mother is in Douglas, Georgia. One of my homes is New York, and that will probably always be because I spent so many years there. Because I’m touring so much … I do have a place here in Athens that I sublet. And I also spend quite a bit of time in Vienna. … But … when you’re on the road as many weeks as I am you kind of, the internet can be your home too because that’s where you … have your continuity of relationships and friendships. … I don’t have a answer but I know that its certainly not singular for me.”
Jones: “…before we finish our interview. Would you mind just saying your name once.”
Harrell: “No, because, now I’m realizing it’s a funny question because people pronounce my name a lot of different ways you know and I answer to them all. … And you’re the first person to ask me that question … I’m reluctant to have one pronunciation.”
Something about these two exchanges from my recent interview with Trajal Harrell speaks volumes about his mercurial choreography. Yes, he creates dances, and they are very much located in the body, but the work is as much theater and performance art and runway show and voguing ball as it is proscenium dance. The notion of identity plays strongly in his work. Who is who, Are they runway models or are they dancers? Are they characters from a Greek drama? Are the performers themselves or are they “themselves”?
Trajal is well-known as the creator of the “Twenty Looks…” series, a collection of dances that imagine a fictional collision between the Harlem voguing balls (watch Paris is Burning now if you haven’t) and the Judson Church postmodern dance scene of the 1960s. As in a fashion collection, each piece was created with a different size (XS, S, M, L, M2M, XL). The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai takes the idea of size and audience to another place. As he said, “the Twenty Looks… project had this important idea around the sizes of the pieces and how they were […] enlarging the audience through each size […] I really wanted to enlarge the audience even further with Ghost… I wanted to make this for a kind of mainstream audience. And I felt that none of the pieces before had gone that far. I mean mainstream is a strange word, but I’m gonna use it.”
Trajal and I also spoke about what feels new about this piece, which centers around the work of French choreographer Dominique Bagouet and Tatsumi HIjikata, two relatively un-famous artists who died young before their work was done. Trajal went on, “You know we have this fascination with people who died young somehow. But, because they were in very unknown fields, we didn’t have a kind of cultural mourning around them… I didn’t know how you take something that’s tragic or mournful in a way, and by the end get the audience to to sense, to have this great appreciation for life and the joy that we’re here together even though we mourn. And so that was very new for me.”
Though Trajal’s work is about history and springs forth from intense research, what I find fascinating is how that research influences the work. In no way does he attempt to recreate, rather, he uses his research to, as he said, “generate a language on the stage, and a movement practice… informed by operations that may be in those forms.” He went on, “Bagouet was very well-known for his very specific use of the hands and there’s a lot of that in ‘Ghost…’ We don’t try to make Bagouet movement, but there’s this sense of the hands being very important… It’s only a way to generate and get closer to what I want to make as myself.”
Though home for Trajal is not as he said, “singular,” he is an American, and I wanted to hear from him about what it meant to work so closely with the choreography and biography of two non-American artists, working outside of American culture. His response: “American culture has really exported itself into a lot of cultures… and certainly both [Bagouet and Hijikata] have been influenced by American culture and by American artistic creation. And, how do we draw those lines? How we write history and how we think about culture? I’m suspicious of that. In the best sense.”
I look forward to seeing how those suspicions manifest in The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai.