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.

Time Out New York: Could you elaborate?
Trajal Harrell:
I don’t remember which show it was, but I saw a show on video and I cried. It was a fashion show, and I was weeping. It was the costumes, the makeup, the movement. So I still feel that this fashion spectacle relates to what I’m interested in in terms of performativity, in terms of moving people, in terms of how we think about how early postmodern dance has found other relationships in other parts of culture. I think there’s a lot to dig into. Knowing what happened with the other research after 12, 13 years, I imagine that I could really be somewhere in ten years with this if I stick to it and go deep. And I’ve done the other—I do have a little more confidence. When I starting researching postmodern dance and voguing in 2001, I was alone and I didn’t have the kind of support or pieces that people were speaking about and enjoying and writing about. Now I know that can yield something for you as an artist. It’s not about success. Maybe in five years I’ll realize, Bad turn, try something else. But I think there’s so much potential there and I like that it’s old. Butoh is kind of dead in Japan too, and I like that I’m kind of going in a place that’s not trendy at all. It’s there, but it’s not very cultivated. It’s nice.

Time Out New York: It’s like tap or modern dance.
Trajal Harrell:
Exactly. And this is related to fashion, to pedestrianism, to spectacle and, of course, to performativity. But again, please, people do not expect a Butoh performance.

Time Out New York: Is it a solo?
Trajal Harrell:
No, it’s a group piece for five of us. There is a solo that I do, but it’s also Thibault Lac; singer Imani Uzuri; a collaborator-photographer I’ve worked with, David Bergé; and a cameo piece for [dancer] Mina Nishimura. I don’t know if it will ever be performed again. It’s definitely a museum piece. It’s not going to go to a theater.

Time Out New York: How is the audience situated?
Trajal Harrell:
There will be some stools, but people will be around it pretty much. We’re figuring out how to direct people, but it will be a sitting, standing, kneeling, let’s-come-together kind of situation. That may work, may not.

Time Out New York: What else did you do in terms of research?
Trajal Harrell:
I talked to people, I met with some Butoh dancers. I went to Kabuki theater. I went with Yasuko Yokoshi to a class with her Kabuki teacher. That was incredible because there’s so much formality. You have to treat them like masters and we don’t have it like that here. I looked at a lot of photographs—around 2,000—of Hijikata’s work. What I’m interested in is how these historical impossibilities incite the imagination to make art. Sometimes photography is a better conduit for that than video. You can’t go into the archive and watch five Hijikata pieces in a day. It’s just impossible. They’re so intense; even watching one every three days is a lot to meditate upon. The last time I went I looked through a lot of photographs and took a lot of pictures and that gave me more—I had to imagine what the pieces were as opposed to seeing them. They bring you a box with the photographs and they’re in plastic, transparent envelopes. You pull it out and that one is in one and another is in one—it’s like a Russian doll. I was so freaked out that I would put them in the wrong one. I spent a lot of time doing that when I was in Japan. I did meet with someone who had worked with Rei Kawakubo. She does her own designs and there had to be a lot of translation. I’ve been reading books.

Time Out New York: What’s your relationship with Comme des Garçons?
Trajal Harrell:
I’ve always liked Comme des Garçons and appreciated it as art, but I fell in love with the clothes there. I don’t know why it was different in Japan. Possibly it is because it is less expensive. I was much more able to get in there and look at things. It invites you into a different mentality about how you wear clothes, what fashion can be in the world, sexuality, nonsexuality, how we can play with these things, how we can play with the body as an object. I’m drawing this map as a territory. I will explore it in this research. But once I got to the archive, I was like, I have to deal with this first. We’ll see where I go next. There’s something there, I know.

Time Out New York: There has to be, right?
Trajal Harrell:
Even though they’re different generations, clearly in the ’70s, there’s some overlap. I would like to ask Rei Kawakubo that question. But I haven’t found anyone who’s said, “Let’s look at the connections between Butoh and Comme des Garçons and Hijikata and Rei Kawakubo.” Somehow fashion gets a bad rap as material culture. There’s so much around it because of the luxury industry and people’s assumptions about that and of course, that’s a part of it—but there are other aspects that need to be looked at really academically, theoretically, culturally, and it’s so much a part of our lives that to ignore it is a bit ridiculous. The art world has been looking at it for a long time or every now and then turns an eye to it, but in Japan, Kabuki—all of these things are highly costumed. How do they relate the commercial industry to this history? There are museum shows about costume in Japan relating it to fashion, but I think that it stops somewhere. I haven’t seen anyone say, Let’s really look at the performativity between Butoh and Comme des Garçons. People will look at the costumes and the patterns or the shapes, but we don’t get underneath it and talk about how these things are performing themselves in culture and that’s where it interests me and I think that’s what makes my work different. I’m sure Valerie Steele from FIT could go on and on about these things, but when we start talking about performance it’s different and people in performance don’t feel as comfortable with fashion.

Time Out New York: Are you feeling used, abused and hung out to dry?
Trajal Harrell:
[Laughs] Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think it will become more apparent in the show, but Butoh is a bit used, abused and hung out to dry. That’s also part of the aesthetic of Hijikata—this sense of taking things that are used and that no one else wants. And I like it as a title, because there’s something about this idea of war and this assumption that Butoh is about the post-atomic war. A lot of people in Butoh don’t buy this. They say that’s a Western idea of what Butoh is all about and an easy way for you to fix it in your own narrative, so it has all those connotations.

Time Out New York: Are you going overboard in terms of costumes?
Trajal Harrell:
No, not yet. I think we went overboard in Antigone Sr. Do you know what I mean? It’s not at that level at all because I haven’t gotten there yet, and I want to get there in a real way. And frankly, the people I’ve talked to so far in trying to understand even Hijikata’s relationship to fashion, it’s very difficult. I’ve met two people who were there and close in his creative environment, and they don’t say a lot. But clearly the imagination of the costumes—there’s something. It’s so vital and specific and beautiful and dynamic and ugly and singular. I’m trying to understand where he was coming from. This is a funny story: The woman who is the head of the Saison Foundation…they took me out to a tempura house. We were talking about my research and Hijikata, and I’m telling the story about how I didn’t want to go to the archives from the beginning, but thank God they told me to go. I’m super excited. I’m saying, “I just wish I would have known what the impact was” and the woman said, “Yes, yes, I was there and I was crying.” I said, “You were there?” She said, “Yes, I was a young girl and I was working for the producer and I was doing the lights.” I literally almost fell in my tempura sauce. I could not believe I had been going through this story the whole meal and then she tells me she was doing the lights for Hijikata’s last performance. In Japanese culture, for her she’s not an authority. I need to talk to someone else. But this is who I want to talk to—what was he like? Was he smoking? Was he drinking? Was he sitting as a desk? What was he saying? I have no real anecdotes. She set me up to speak to the producer, and he was very nice and gave me some materials that were very, very helpful, but I don’t know if it’s that you don’t speak for the master, but there is something no one really…The big mystery is that [Hijikata’s muse] Yoko Ashikawa is missing. She disappeared. She left. She stopped and then she went missing off the scene. Of course, I want to meet her.

Time Out New York: That’s whom Claude studied with.
Trajal Harrell:
Yes! I didn’t realize this until I read your article [in The New York Times]. I have to talk to Claude. It’s really opening up in this weird way: You, Comme des Garçons, Claude, Yoko Ashikawa. I thought I went so far away, but actually so much of it is right here. I will never know the impact. That’s the beauty of performance: You have to be there. But I’m interested in perhaps knowing what some of the ingredients were and how that relates to what we do today or what we don’t do today and what kind of impact we want to make with our work. I’m interested in different processes of imagination. I will do different things with this research. I always think things are going to be more controversial than they are and they never are. My question is a bit sacrilegious and maybe if I asked Yoko Ashikawa, she’d be like, “How dare you?” But most people hear it and they go, “Oh! Okay—when are you doing the piece?”

Time Out New York: Right because they want to see what it looks like to vogue Hijikata.
Trajal Harrell:
Yes. People are much more open. In Japan, I think people are waiting—it’s kind of a shame that Butoh has died. It got imported to the West and Sankai Juku still operates, but with Ohno and Hijikata both gone and Yoko missing…Maro still does work, but a lot of people don’t know it. I didn’t go further. The relationship between Ohno and Hijikata was interesting. Don’t even get me started on the sexuality. This is another thing you can’t really find out about. Of course, all of them are super straight and have wives and are womanizers, but that doesn’t mean everything in Japan. There are still some interesting questions we have to ask; not about whom they slept with, but certainly they were interested in other kinds of ways that sexualities can express themselves. For me, it’s a great space for the imagination. I’m not going to find answers. Forget it. But I will find nuggets of inspiration that will take me somewhere. And what’s really interesting is that they’re taking me into dialogues with people here, which are as strong as the dialogues of people there. So it’s not just about going to some foreign place and taking something exotic. It’s here.

Trajal Harrell performs at the Museum of Modern Art February 13–14, 2013.

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