Free Your Mind: Take Five With Performance Artist Trajal Harrell

By Jayne Robinson

Get a glimpse into the world of performance artist Trajal Harrell ahead of his first-ever UK residency at the iconic Barbican Gallery...

As the song goes, ‘free your mind, and the rest will follow’… And we wonder if a song were a person, if En Vogue’s classic might come alive in performance artist Trajal Harrell. Ahead of his first-ever UK residency at the iconic Barbican Gallery –
where Frame are getting in on the action with our very own Free Your Mind Music Video class – we get a glimpse into his early inspiration in Georgia, USA, his life’s work and what makes him tick when he chatted to Barbican curator Leila Hasham…

This is your first performative exhibition anywhere in the world, including works you made in 1999 right through to 2016. Can you talk us through the selection?

TH: The selected pieces provide a survey of my work – from my first experiment with minimalism to my most recent pieces/creations. They mesh together ideas and movements from across the globe spanning many cultures and centuries – from modern dance, to hoochie koochie, Japanese butoh to voguing. The fashion runway is reinterpreted as a formalist device and elements such as platforms, walls, piano benches and screens provide sculptural relief and significant visual – as well as musical – tension. The audience itself becomes an integral part of the choreography, sometimes sculptural and sometimes otherwise, redefining the relationship between dance and the choreographic.

You have stated that the majority of your work in the last decade has been framed by the question: ‘What would have happened in 1963 if someone from the ball scene in Harlem had gone downtown to perform alongside the early postmoderns at Judson Church?’ Why is that?

TH: The history of Judson Dance Theater (the experimental dance collective in Greenwich Village, New York City, and the birthplace of postmodern dance) has been accepted in official dance history in a way that voguing has not.

In the early 1990s, the aesthetics and principles of the leading early postmodern dance choreographers from Judson Dance Theater provided the foundation for a ‘rethinking’ of contemporary dance. It seemed stuck in the same recycling of Judson ideas and Yvonne Rainer’s No Manifesto (1965), and I was determined to do something new. The lens of voguing allowed me to see that the idea that Judson had produced a neutral and democratic body was partly a fiction.

This exhibition is centred on your recent work Caen Amour (2016), which focuses on hoochie koochie shows. Can you explain how this piece came about and what interested you in this practice?

TH: In my research I was looking at how butoh started. One of the things butoh artists were revolting against was the conventions of Kabuki, the traditional Japanese dance-drama. The early Kabuki began with rural theatre forms. They reminded me of my own relationship to rural theatre and my first encounter with dance as a performance spectacle. When I was growing up, in a small town in Georgia, my father would take me to the fair. At a certain point in the night he would send me off with friends and he would go to something called the hoochie koochie show. It was only when I got older that I began to realise what it meant.

I started researching the hoochie koochie and looking at its potential relationship to butoh in terms of formal practices, both from an imaginary and a realistic point of view. Butoh was highly influenced by modern dance and I think that this hoochie koochie is related to the beginnings of modern dance as well. In my research I always tend to find the cracks and fissures of history: things that are clearly a part of (dance) history but that haven’t been fully exposed or investigated.

You have rarely performed in the UK so we’re thrilled to be able to bring your work to a new audience. What would you like visitors to take away from this presentation?

TH: I hope visitors have the opportunity to spend quality time with this body of work. It’s rare that the opportunity exists to see a time span of dances shown together and to discover the connections and through-lines, as they relate to each other, other works of art, and the visitors’ own experiences and lives. I like the fact that the exhibition format gives the visitor the flexibility to decide how they want to spend their time. I find this incredibly exciting. The exhibition will present over 14 of Harrell’s performances and visitors are encouraged to explore the changing, yet continuous programme of live shows.

Originally published on the Barbican blog. Trajal Harrell: Hoochie Koochie runs in the Barbican Gallery from 20 July to 13 August. For updates and to get in on the conversation, follow @BarbicanCentre and #TrajalHarrell on Instagram and Twitter.

JOIN THE PARTY: Frame – Free your mind… and the rest will follow – Music Video, Garden Room, Barbican Centre
60 minute Music Video dance class. Lots of 90s RnB, taking inspiration from the sass and attitude of the Trajal Harrell: Hoochie Koochie performance exhibition at the Barbican. All levels. Tickets include exhibition entry before the class. BOOK NOW

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