Trajal Harrell Brings Voguing Downtown
Ariel Osterweis Scott, Ph.D. candidate in Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, speaks with noted choreographer Trajal Harrell. Harrell’s works have been seen at institutions including The New Museum, ICA Boston, The Kitchen, and numerous international venues. Here, Harrell discusses his work.
Ariel Osterweis Scott: How did your piece Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (S) come about?
Trajal Harrell: I am dealing with the theoretical nexus between voguing and early postmodern dance. The piece is a fashion show. There’s always dressing and undressing. There’s always voguing happening. I tend to be interested in histories of movement on women’s bodies, movement that hasn’t been recorded, or hasn’t been historicized. Voguing fits in there, but is a little bit different. I came up with this proposition, what would have happened in 1963 if someone from the voguing dance tradition in Harlem had come down to Judson Church to perform alongside the early postmoderns? If I was someone from that tradition coming down, what would I do? The first thing I was thinking of was selling. I would sell some things.
AOS: What things? Your body?
TH: Yeah. I was thinking I would try to make some money in that situation. What would it mean for vogue to change markets? Then I thought of this famous picture of David Hammons selling snowballs on the streets of Harlem, and the different sized snowballs I thought, I should do it in different sizes. Literally, [the piece] is sold in different sizes to presenters on the dance market. I didn’t want to deny the fact that the piece is for sale. That’s kind of how Twenty Looks came about.
AOS: Do you think everyone is always voguing?
TH: I think that if we take voguing as a theoretical concept, I would say we are always all voguing. It’s like what RuPaul said: “Who isn’t in drag?”
AOS: Where did you grow up? What is your dance background?
TH: I grew up in Douglas, Georgia, and I went to Yale. I didn’t dance at Yale.
AOS: Who did you dance with?
TH: I didn’t dance with anyone. I always did my own work. I had directed in the theater in college.
AOS: Tell me about your relationship to voguing.
TH: It’s not about copying voguing.
AOS: You don’t want voguing to be embodied.
TH: No, I’m not a voguer. The whole thing is an imaginative possibility. I’m interested in the impossibility, that history that could not come together.
AOS: Had you ever gone to the balls?
TH: In 2000, I went to my first ball, the Love Ball. I was blown away by it. At the time, my work was super minimalist. I had gone to the ball, and I had gone to my first fashion show. These two things [were] more interesting than what I was seeing in dance in terms of postmodernism. The pedestrianism on the runway is incredible, the way it’s a character, but it’s not. In voguing, just the idea of social performance, the way gender operates, you lose your ability to see gender or to automatically read gender. In 2001 I was playing around in the studio one day, and it just came to me: “What would happen if I made voguing minimalist?” Voguing is so elaborate and decorative in its use of the arms. I put on this Yaz song, “Ode to Boy,” I just walked and posed. I thought no one would get it. I had this gig at Judson Church; the whole place erupted into applause.
AOS: What kind of audience?
TH: A lot of dancers, a lot of art people. I figured, there’s something in this. That’s when I started looking at voguing more, but very theoretically, really going back to the fashion movement as a way to begin to think about how they had processed that information and transformed it. I started doing a lot of research on fashion shows—the history of runway.
AOS: How did you do the research?
TH: [A friend] gave me videotapes [of fashion shows], and we would work in the studio. We would treat the movement just like it was ballet. How can I learn this movement (with no irony)? Really looking at, how is this woman moving? How is she putting her foot down? How are her hips moving? Really learning it academically.
I did an experimental research project called Tickle the Sleeping Giant, interested in how “cool” gets written on the body, the relationship between cool as an aesthetic and cool as a social motivation. Because we weren’t skinny white models, when we did this movement, in a way, we were voguing. I mean, not voguing, but a theoretical “where is the realness?” The idea of realness-in-performance versus authenticity. We worked on this whole performance of cool, runway walking. [Then I started] going to the mini balls up in Harlem. That completely changed things. It was a little room very different from the big balls where you’re in a place like the Roxy. How could I use the theoretical underpinning [of voguing] to think about the dance community?
At the time, New York was changing a lot, and my friends were losing their places. How [were] we going to survive? The thing we forget about Judson is that this was a community of people, and there were mini-cliques inside of it. It wasn’t this neutral, non-socio-politicized milieu, you know? That’s something the dance world doesn’t want to look at.
[Show Pony] blurs the boundaries between community, audience, and performers. That piece was all about attention, non-attention, and visibility. In the end, I did a slideshow of pictures taken between 2006 and 2008, showing people in the international [dance] community (Brussels, Berlin) It was highly controversial because some people thought it was like showing Who’s Who, Who’s In, or Who’s Out but it’s not about who you know but about who you don’t know. The power of attention and visibility in dance is in the hands of the presenters and programmers, unlike in most fields where there’s also a negotiation with others. A singer or actor has an agent, publicists, all kinds of people who are in charge of their visibility I wanted to make people question those kinds of power relationships: who decides who has attention and who doesn’t have attention? Competition between dancers. That’s the voguing aspect of it. The piece [Show Pony] is a competition. We compete for the attention of the audience. This is always happening, whether or not we acknowledge it. In every performance, there are people we give more attention to and people we give less attention to. Sometimes we go to a certain show because we know a certain person. We get drawn to a certain person.
AOS: The narrative in Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning documentary is the narrative that gets rehearsed over and over in so many documentaries, in which dance is used to show that underground Black communities are always fighting against each other. We saw that in Rize. Were you trying to refigure the idea of Black dance as an endless battle by putting voguing in the Judson postmodern context?
TH: It’s interesting that you speak of battling because battling is a very specific aspect of voguing. In a way, it’s integral. And of course in Show Pony, in a way, you could say we battle because we compete.
AOS: In duets?
TH: The whole piece is a system of a competition. It’s not literal, but we are constantly competing. In the end, the system exhausts itself until it becomes a showdown. You get the thing that you want. Before, it’s like, what am I looking at, what am I looking at? This person’s going there. Sometimes you can see things; sometimes you can’t. And in the end, we do it: the battle. She goes. I go. She goes. I go.
AOS: That’s like a Grand Pas de Deux, which is a battle if you think of the solo variations performed one after another: male solo, female solo, and on and on. How are your performances read or received in Europe, where there’s not as much context for voguing?
TH: In Brussels, they didn’t get it at all. In France, it went wonderfully. Even though people didn’t really understand everything (Americans really get the subtleties like Greta Garbo), when I got deeper into the piece, it became much more emotional and this way of accessing the imagination.
AOS: What is the relationship between gender and everyday life for you in Twenty Looks?
TH: I really feel the world would be a better place if we had gender equality. Feminism is in my bones. It’s very specific that in this work, we take on women’s movement and not the men’s. Even as a child, I never bought the gender thing. My parents would take me shopping. I would always choose the shoe that was the most androgynous. They would always try to steer me to the boys’ shoe. They wanted a “boy” boy. Maybe they felt that even at a young age that I was gay. I really fought (I mean, I grew up in south Georgia) even to cross my legs, to be who I really was—my sensibility and the way my sensibility got expressed in me physically. Voguing is another tool to look at those issues. I don’t start from politics to make my work. If you ask people what kind of work I make, they say I’m a conceptualist. I’m so not a conceptualist. I’m really an expressionist. Twenty Looks is maybe an exception. Usually, the piece comes from some experience that I have in the studio expressing something I can only express through movement, then trying to understand that allowing that to crystallize into a piece.
AOS: Have you ever invited a voguer or someone from Judson to come see your work?
TH: I wanted to do a piece with Steve Paxton, but he wouldn’t do it. Out of all of those people, my work is closest to Lucinda. My work is very formal. Twenty Looks is very graphic in its way of thinking. In terms of voguing, I always stayed apart. I really felt it was essential that I not try to merge. It was theoretical. I saw what other people were doing with voguing taking a little bit here and putting it with their dances. The difference for me is that the movement is secondary to the theory underneath it. This tradition has a very strong theoretical praxis underneath it. It has a language.