Trajal Harrell

Voguing meets postmodern dance.

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HAND IT OVER In (XS), Harrell makes magic.

HAND IT OVER In (XS), Harrell makes magic. Photographs: Antoine Temp

In his exceptional and ongoing five-part Twenty Looks or Paris Is Burning at the Judson Church, Trajal Harrell continues his rigorous exploration of two forms: postmodern dance and voguing. He frames each dance within the project, ranging from Extra Small to Extra Large, around a question: "What would have happened in 1963 if someone from the voguing-ball scene in Harlem had come downtown to perform alongside the early postmoderns at Judson Church?" Two more pieces from the series—Medium (M), or (M)imosa, and Extra Small (XS)—will be unveiled at the Kitchen beginning Wednesday 9. In Medium, Harrell collaborates with Ccilia Bengolea, Franois Chaignaud and Marlene Monteiro Freitas to explore the voguing-ball scene; Extra Small is a lush solo for 25 viewers. He recently spoke about his ongoing Looks.

I want to get to Medium and Large, but first talk to me about Extra Small, which you performed at Abrons for the American Realness Festival. It also coincided with the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) showcase.
The way the Extra Small works dramaturgically is so different than the Small in that it starts off very postmodern. Then, slowly, I go into this mythical thing. I was thinking much more about making an object. I think the performance you saw was much more internal; the piece moves between the external and the internal. I felt right away that there were heavy hitters in the room, and I think I was like, Okay, I have to get through this. So I protected myself in that performance. It wasn't bad, but I didn't allow myself to flow through it and it wasn't as touching. There were also too many people [in the audience]. I will work on it as a daily practice, just getting it into my body so that it flows. APAP does this weird shit on you. You make a bargain with the devil and you have to deal with it. Even though a festival is a "market," [compared to APAP] there is still some distance [between presenters and artists]. It's not in your face. The good thing that happened to me is that a lot of the American presenters came. It's very important to me. I don't want to be locked out of the U.S.

How would you describe Extra Small?
I call it a gem. It's an intimate piece for 25 people; they sit on the floor. It's a series of entrances and exits. Although it's Extra Small, it has more fluidity than the Small to reach a wider audience. Because of the technicalities of it, it can be shown in a gallery. It can be in a room. If there was space in a home and we could get the right light? The precarious thing is that the lighting is important. It can be performed on the floor of a theater. It can move around. I was thinking: How can I make something using just one suitcase? The Small has to be installed. The floor is gray Marley, and there has to be the right chairs and the right tape. It's specific. In Small, I knew I was starting a conversation. It's much more discursive, it's much more about a challenging kind of atmosphere; when it works well, in each look, we begin to create this kind of signification process together. Even though it's completely fictional, when that piece works, [the audience and I] create it together somehow. We don't know what this stuff means. I made it up!

You are referring to the names of the 20 "looks" you perform in Small.
[Laughs] "New School Hokey Pokey"—what the hell is that? We go with it, and we go to the next one and the one after that. The Extra Small is very different in that the layers are much more purely aesthetic, and it's much more about beauty. Beauty becomes this thing that gets negotiated. We never talk about that in terms of the contemporary Judson aesthetic, but it is, of course, antibeauty; voguing, of course, is completely obsessed with beauty. The piece starts in a very blas way, but then it has to go through layers to get to something really beautiful. It's completely made of things that are anti-Judson, but I think the way it's set up, you can go there with me. At first, I had to go there myself. It's nowhere as discursive as Small. In the Small, I was much more in touch with how I wanted to have this discussion with an audience. I was also working with a dramaturge. The Extra Small is really expression.

Do you think people understood what you were reacting against, meaning the Judson aesthetic and ideal, in Small?
It's interesting—now I deal so much with how this piece is perceived in different cultures. I think [audience members] in the U.S., because the references are much more readable, are less bothered by the tension in the piece. People laugh a lot. They see it right away. And this idea of a third thing is American: We're different, but we come from so many things to make something else; you don't have this so much in other countries. So in the American audience, even if we don't understand [the premise] intellectually, it's in our being. When you switch to a different culture, there's much more at stake. When I do this piece, for example, in Brussels, the first look is "West Coast Preppy Schoolboy." I'm standing, walking—clearly postmodern dance, but then there's this layer of dressing which is voguing. [In Brussels], they can't tear it apart. They can't separate and see that I've put those things together, so they don't know what they're looking at, and then they're not laughing at the image of me being the "West Coast Preppy Schoolboy" either. I've learned how to create that resonance. Of course, I was spoiled [by performing it first in New York]. The first couple of times I performed it in Europe, I was lost. I just thought, Okay, they're never going to get it. I had a [performance] date in France, and I was like, Why am I going to go there? Maybe it's just an American piece. Then I thought, Why are you doing this piece? Why do you perform? I realized that in every piece, on some level, I'm trying to create a resonance with the audience. Whether I'm sitting on someone's lap [as he did in Show Pony] or shaking their hands when they walk in the door or looking into their eyes or letting them see me shake, I'm trying to create a resonance individually and collectively. So I decided to focus on that and not to worry about what they understood or didn't. And it worked.

They got the connection?
Yes. They could feel it. They understood the emotional journey that I was on and that we were on together. So the core changes from place to place. When I was conceptualizing the series in my head, I knew I wanted the first one to be the hardest in terms of references. I wanted to get that out of the way, almost like a glossary. I wanted to start the discussion. And I knew in the end, I would have no control over what people saw first—at the Kitchen, some will see Medium before they see Small. But in terms of my discussion, it was very important to start there. I knew it would ignite misunderstandings. I wasn't as fully prepared for the fact that there would be such a cultural difference.

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