Trajal Harrell talks about bringing Butoh to MoMA

Trajal Harrell talks about bringing Butoh and Hijikata to MoMA in his new Used, Abused and Hung Out to Dry.

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Trajal Harrell Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem (Made-to-Measure)/Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (M2M)

Trajal Harrell Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem (Made-to-Measure)/Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (M2M) Photograph: Miana Jun


Choreographer Trajal Harrell presents his new Used, Abused and Hung Out to Dry at the Museum of Modern Art as part of the series Performing Histories: Live Artworks Examining the Past. Harrell’s new dance is inspired by Tatsumi Hijikata, the choreographer who, along with Kazuo Ohno, developed Butoh. In Trajal Harrell's follow up to Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church, he poses a curious question: How do you vogue Hijikata? 

In honor of Used, Abused and Hung Out to Dry, choreographer Trajal Harrell has begun research that will likely obsess him for the next decade. Presented at the Museum of Modern Art as part of the series Performing Histories: Live Artworks Examining the Past, Harrell’s new dance is inspired by Tatsumi Hijikata, the choreographer who—along with Kazuo Ohno—developed Butoh, a dance form that emerged in post-WWII Japan. In his recent series of multisize dances, Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church, Harrell explored the meeting ground of voguing and postmodern dance. His next choreographic venture proposes a different question: How do you vogue Hijikata? 

Time Out New York: How did this new work happen?
Trajal Harrell:
The whole Twenty Looks series was about finishing this research—summing it up and doing it in a big way. I knew already that I was making a piece for the Montpellier Dance Festival in 2014. I had started some research in Japan, and I knew it was my new research. I knew I was moving on from this Judson/postmodern dance/voguing to something else, and I knew it had to do with Japan. I went to Japan twice last year and I was working with Jenny [Schlenzka of  MoMA PS1] on the commission Made-to-Measure, and we were speaking with Ana [Janevski, associate curator of Media and Performance Art at MoMA] and they found out that I was going to Japan. MoMA has a Tokyo show, so they asked me if I would like to do something. Like when I would meet curators and talk about my research in Japan, they were very excited, and I was hesitant. I was like, “I’m just ending something—I’m not ready to make a piece. Give me three years.” Then, I went back to Japan and I was just so into it. Hijikata would say, “In one step are a thousand animals.” So I can take one step.

Time Out New York: What are you thinking about?
Trajal Harrell:
For me, it’s really the first step in this new research. Because of the last research, I see it as being maybe ten years. I’m not putting too much pressure on it in that way, but of course MoMA comes with its own set of pressures. I’m doing it in a space I like—the Gund lobby in front of the garden, in front of the [Monument to] Balzac. I’m not doing the Atrium [where most dance events occur]. I’m doing it at night. You have to have a special ticket, so I’m not dealing with the museum-hours crowd. Not that that’s a bad thing—we would have tried to do a version in there, but it just didn’t work out with the schedule. And the third thing is, I’m making it for a gallery space—I’m not making a theater piece. The hardest part is performing in New York somehow. I perform so much now out of town: I have a different kind of connection with the audience. In New York, it’s different. There’s that level of intensity. People know me, they have expectations, they’ve been following my work: it’s the hometown.

Time Out New York: Claude Wampler calls it “the home-team disadvantage.”
Trajal Harrell:
Yeah. Perfect. That’s what you feel. So I feel the pressure from that, and if MoMA weren’t in New York, I wouldn’t have that. It’s the dance scene coming to MoMA in New York so that feels like pressure, but I’m very excited about my new research. Also because now this voguing—the territory is not just me anymore. There are a lot of people [interested in voguing now], and it’s kind of like being an explorer. I like going where no one is. Do you know what I mean? There is something liberating about that. Also now I’m kind of going where people have already been. So it’s also like, Who wants to go there?

Time Out New York: This is your first piece after your exploration of postmodern dance and voguing. What is your research?
Trajal Harrell:
This piece is very influenced by my going into the Hijikata archives. But this is not how I started. I had a fellowship from the Saison Foundation, and I decided that my research would be—which it still is—that I wanted to draw a fictional map between Butoh and [Comme des Garçons founder] Rei Kawakubo. If you read about the impact of Comme des Garçons at the Paris shows in 1981, and you also read about how people wrote about Butoh, it’s very similar. I thought, This could be an interesting way to think about how I want to deal with performativity, how I want to deal with the spectacle as a bridge from my fashion-voguing thing, but thinking about it in a different way.

Time Out New York: What is the idea of the map about?
Trajal Harrell:
I would go and talk to Butoh people. But the idea was to meet people and ask them, “Do you know Rei Kawakubo and can you introduce me?” Assuming that no one would be able to do that, because she’s very reclusive, but that I would keep making this circuit of three degrees of separation that would lead to something else. Before I left, a colleague of mine who’s actually on my board said, “You should go to Hijikata’s archives at Keio University.” I said, “I don’t want to go to Hijikata’s archives—that’s too easy.” One day the people at Saison said, “Don’t you want to go to Hijikata’s archives?” In Japan, they take care of you. They would make my schedule and go with me, so they knew when I had a free day. I thought, Okay—I have nothing else to do, why not? I went and I was like [Grips the table]. I could not believe it.

Time Out New York: What happened?
Trajal Harrell:
I put in the last piece he made and I was just so blown away. As I got more into this, I realized that part of it is because we didn’t see Hijikata’s work. We had more access to [Kazuo] Ohno. But Hijikata never left Japan. We’ve seen pictures and documentaries and we’ve seen people like Min Tanaka or Dairakudakan and Akaji Maro or Ko Murobushi, who were first-generation Hijikata.

Time Out New York: You know that Eiko and Koma studied with Hijikata, too?
Trajal Harrell:
And Eiko and Koma. Yes. I would love to meet them. I’ve been a little scared because of this work; I went to see their performance at MoMA. But going back to Hijikata, we didn’t see this work and so my images of Butoh were from Ohno, Sankai Juku, Dairakudakan. I didn’t have the original Hijikata images—other than maybe the first dance in Forbidden Colors and the one with the chicken. I was just blown away by his dances, so I said, Okay—this is the first location on the map. The question I came up with was: How do you vogue Hijikata? I know, in some circles, this is a sacrilegious question. Of course! Because every Butoh performance, in a way, is trying to vogue Hijikata. [Laughs] Obviously I’m not at all trying to mix Hijikata, Butoh with voguing dance vocabulary. Nor am I trying to be a Butoh dancer. What I’m interested in is the impact that his work had. I’m in a historical impossibility like with most of my work. I’m trying to relate that with who I am as an artist today and what I want to make. I’m not going to be a Butoh dancer. The world doesn’t need me to be a Butoh dancer.

Time Out New York: What are you exploring in the piece?
Trajal Harrell:
This first one has the sense of ceremoniousness. And there’s something quite charged in terms of what I’m trying to do with impact and trying to translate something about the sacrificial within it. When I looked at the work, I was blown. I thought, What were people thinking in the ’80s in Japan? How did they comprehend it?

Time Out New York: What did you see?
Trajal Harrell:
Tohoku Kabuki Plan IV. That’s the last piece, and it was part of a series. It’s so aesthetically strong. It’s the last piece he made before he died and for some reason that was the one I put in first when I got to these archives. He had stopped making work and the guy who had been his producer wanted to build a theater and convince him to come back and these four pieces was his way of trying to come back. His death was quite unexpected. There are people who think that this work was not as strong as the middle work, but for me, again, the aesthetic was so strong. [Pauses] I like some Sankai Juku.

Time Out New York: I don’t!
Trajal Harrell:
When they first came out and I saw them I liked them. Then I hated them. And then they were in a festival I was in and I kind of fell for them again, I have to say. But Hijikata is something else and we just didn’t see it. I’m looking at it on video, and the colors are very muted—from what I understand, the way he used light and costuming was so incredible. The thing about it is when you go through his notebooks, he was looking at everything—he was such a shrewd, precise, hungry artist. Yes, he had a broad imagination and there were some wild and crazy things about Hijikata, but when you go into his notebooks you realize this man was absorbing art history and dance history and translating it in his own way. I don’t know how he talked to the dancers. Right now I’m trying to stay on the level of the imagination before I get too historical and too precise and get into his techniques. Yes, it’s different and it’s scary. One of the things I realized that happened with the Twenty Looks series is that I was on a roll. I was doing the same question and so of course by the time I got to Antigone Sr., I was ready—I had been working on this for a long time and in a sense it was the same piece I was making again and again. Although I really feel that Made-to-Measure is a strong departure, this is a new piece. Of course, you will see the connections and the continuity and of course the question is related, but it is new and in that you always feel like, Uh-oh! I’m done with that other thing. I love it, I’m performing it, but I’m done. [Laughs] I am done.

Time Out New York: Is it difficult to have to keep performing works from Twenty Looks
Trajal Harrell:
It’s nice. That’s me as a performer, and we keep working on the pieces. (M)imosa is different, because we’re on No. 68 or something. But it keeps changing and [Twenty Looks or Paris Is Burning at the Judson Church] Small, which is the first one I made and performed in 2009, I go to Colorado next month to do it. I love performing them. It will be nice when the whole series is up and I see how they operate together. But creatively speaking, it’s exciting to be in a new territory that I’m very lost in. I do think that even if I was lost in Antigone Sr. and Made-to-Measure, my subconscious knew a lot that I could operate from and here, my subconscious doesn’t have that confidence. Rather than that being a scary thing, I’m quite excited because I’m invested. It’s nice when you find something you’re really invested in. How long this Hijikata location will last I don’t know, but the map still exists. I’m still trying to get to this answer and trying to find a link between Butoh and Rei Kawakubo and Comme des Garçons.

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