Trajal Harrell


at Barbican Art Gallery


At once playful and cerebral, New York- and Athens-based dancer and choreographer Trajal Harrell’s works bring together unlikely combinations of elements from the history of performance: from Yvonne Rainer’s Minimalism to voguing, ancient Greek theater to Japanese butoh. For his Barbican exhibition, Harrell, who received a BA in American Studies from Yale University in 1990, presented fourteen pieces he created since 1999. The works, most lasting around ten minutes, were performed every day of the show’s run, over the course of seven hours and sometimes simultaneously. Titled “Hoochie Koochie,” the exhibition had a vaguely voyeuristic quality. As in hoochie-koochie shows—the belly-dance attractions popular at American fairs and carnivals of yesteryear—a number of works involved sinuous, sensual movements of skimpily dressed performers, though here the performers were mostly men. In Creon Solo (2012), for instance, a male dancer clad in a harness-like getup made of knotted silk scarves moved gracefully under a spotlight.

The exhibition took place in the lower-level gallery of the Barbican. Toward the middle of the space was a stage backed by a wall structure that resembled a schematic fragment of Moorish architecture. The most recent work (and the longest, at seventy minutes) was Caen Amour (2016). Four dancers walked across the stage, striking poses and holding various gowns and costumes against their bodies instead of actually wearing them. Portraying a fictional encounter between modern dance pioneer Loie Fuller, butoh founder Tatsumi Hijikata, and Comme des Garçons creator Rei Kawakubo, the piece offers an intriguing pastiche of clothing styles and dance movements, its references crossing geographic and chronological boundaries.

Harrell’s work frequently alludes to voguing, the style of dance that originated in the Harlem gay scene in the late 1960s. In Wall Dance (2011), for example, two male performers initiate a dance battle on an improvised runway, moving in and out of sync while voguing. Antigone Sr. (L), 2012, reflects on the connection between voguing and ancient Greek theater, in which men played female roles.

Visitors to the show were not just passive onlookers kept at a distance from the dancers. By circulating around the gallery to view performances taking place simultaneously, audience members became an active part of the choreography. Accompanied by loud percussive music, Let’s Get Sick (2013) saw two performers rushing down the stairs leading into the gallery and carrying out frantic, limb-flailing movements around the space that prompted the audience to, by turns, chase and dodge the action. A completely different approach occurred with Showpony Begins (2007), in which a performer interacted intimately with the viewers by sitting on their laps and making intense eye contact.

Harrell not only calls into question the barrier between dancer and spectator. He also complicates the “nowness” associated with live dance, or the focus on the present tense of the gestures and movements being carried out before an audience. In his performances, recent and ancient past play as pivotal a role as any sense of the present. His imaginative choreography beautifully merges specific chapters of dance history with contemporary concerns.