Truth or dare

Trajal Harrell searches for sincerity in Quartet for the End of Time.

In his choreography, Trajal Harrell has tackled literature (Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room), the runway walk, voguing and, most recently in Showpony, the value of performing. Now, his focus is sincerity.

“After Showpony, I sensed that there was a political feeling in the air,” he says over breakfast at an East Village café. “In the U.S., we were accepting all kinds of ironies about our lives. This political race has been about questioning a sense of change; there are many ironies involved, but for once, what’s on the line is, Who is really sincere? So that’s what I’m dealing with. How has it become that art is so much about irony? You could make a piece that was heartfelt, but I felt you always had to wink and go, ‘I know,’ or you were charged with making an old-school modern dance.”

Harrell bases his new Quartet for the End of Time, which will be performed at Dance Theater Workshop Wednesday 15 through October 18, on a singular question: Is it possible to be sincere on the contemporary dance stage? “I can’t say that the piece is completely sincere,” he says. “It’s not. I was thinking about the relationship between irony, sincerity and authenticity. The piece weaves questions like, When is something sincere? What is authenticity? I didn’t want to make a scene with people standing up, going, ‘Here’s a scene that’s sincere.’ ” He scrunches up his face in distaste. “This is not my thing.”

Harrell recalls a trip to Tower Records several years ago, when he happened upon Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, which was written during World War II while the composer was in a Nazi prison camp. “Here’s this man whose life was full of ironies,” the choreographer explains. “A guard gives him a pen and paper because he knows he’s famous, and he’s allowed to write this piece of music, which he premieres at the camp. There’s a lot of mythology and awe around the performance, but he made a piece of music that he was completely sincere about.”

In Quartet for the End of Time, Harrell’s inspirations are disparate. He uses sections of Messiaen’s score and looks at how nudity has been used in contemporary dance (Harrell takes lights, camera, action seriously; the show pony, it seems, never strays far from the stable.)

“When I really started to look into my own sense of nudity, of course, I had to go back to my family,” he says. “When I was a young boy in Georgia, my father would take me to the county fair. At some point in the evening, he would go into the hoochie-koochie show. As the years went on, I became more curious about what that was; when I was maybe 10 or 11, I realized that it was a place with naked women dancing. This was my first introduction to performing and nakedness.”

He made an early movement study about nudity and undressing that figures prominently into his new work. “For me, the piece is a hoochie-koochie show,” Harrell explains. “There’s a certain frame and condition setup that should not yield itself to sincerity. I try to push that to see what happens if you keep reframing the conditions. I don’t want to completely name it; it’s very experiential in a way, but it comes out of that materiality of the things I talked about: the Messiaen, the nudity, the hoochie-koochie show.”

Still, Harrell is reluctant to describe Quartet for the End of Time—which features dancers Keity Anjoure, Will Gordon, Liz Santoro and Christina Vassiliou—as anything in particular. “I’m not a choreographer who is very good about about-ness,” he says. “I say this to Julie Perrin, my dramaturg, a lot. I’m more about the live quality of the experience and the kind of engagement that you can activate in that moment. I hope that people aren’t just sitting there thinking, What is this about? I want it to be a reflection.”

Quartet for the End of Time is at Dance Theater Workshop Wed 15–Oct 18.